G. Love photo by Joe Navas
G. Love Brings His Two Loves Together For Philadelphia Mississippi
Philadelphia-bred artist G. Love has recently released his massively collaborative album, Philadelphia Mississippi via Philadelphonic Records/Thirty Tigers, his first release since his 2020 Grammy-nominated album, The Juice, where he worked with Keb’ Mo’. The concept for the album was both very direct and plenty sophisticated, since G. Love has been aware for many years that there was a city known as Philadelphia, Mississippi in that state, too, and it suggested to him the bringing together of southern and northern musical traditions.
Working with Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi All-Stars) in Mississippi, plenty of planning and a lot of belief in talent and commitment gave rise to studio sessions that brought multiple generations of Blues musicians together as well as G. Love and his frequent collaborators and MCs. The stories behind the creation of the songs on the album are even more intricate than you might imagine, with plenty of room for contributions and improvisational elements. I spoke with G. Love about the ways in which the album evolved according to an ambitious plan and what it was like for him to bring his two great loves of Blues and Hip-Hop together for Philadelphia Mississippi.
Americana Highways: How’s it been out touring?
G. Love: We’re out all summer, on tour now with our friends Dispatch and O.A.R. This is about the longest consecutive tour I’ve ever gone on. It’s a two-month tour that ends September 11th.
AH: Does it feel like a bit of a shock after spending more time stationary?
G. Love: We found a way to do socially distanced concerts in peoples’ backyards during the pandemic, which we called “Soul-i-cues,” so we did quite a lot shows. But this is our first time back on the big stages and amphitheaters in some years. Music is all about community and fans getting to come out and share music with complete strangers, and their friends. That’s what music does. It’s great to see everyone together.
AH: The shows I’ve been to recently have projected such a huge amount of emotion from fans and from musicians. It’s heartwarming to see.
G. Love: It really is a special thing. You can tell the artists have really missed it and the live-music lovers are amped up. Everyone is amped up!
AH: What have you been playing, your 2020 album or the latest, Philadelphia Mississippi?
G. Love: Philadelphia Mississippi just dropped, and The Juice dropped just before the pandemic. That one went on to get my first Grammy nomination during the pandemic. The new album was made during the pandemic, and it’s all about the pilgrimage of the hip-hop blues. We took our hip-hop blues down to Mississippi and immersed ourselves in the culture. The record was produced by Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars.
We recorded this at Zebra Ranch in Coldwater, Mississippi, Dickinson’s studio. It was cool because everybody was off the road, so we were able to invite an amazing group of artists into the studio with us. It’s a very collaborative record which was all about diving into the musical culture in Mississippi and getting to know the musicians down there. So there’s a big group of Blues people on the record, both emerging and established players. One who rocked my world was R.L. Boyce. Then we took the record home and got some of my favorite MCs on it on the Hip-Hop side, like Speech from Arrested Development, Schoolly D, and Freddie Fox from New York. It’s a really special record.
AH: There are a huge number of collaborators on this record, it’s amazing. How intentional was all this in terms of planning? Did you say, “We’re going to go to Mississippi, experience that culture, and find artists”? Or did you already have some of it set up?
G. Love: To go back a little further in time, after I finished the Juice album with Keb’ Mo’. Working with Keb’ Mo’ was like taking a masterclass, not only in the blues, but in music history, studio production, songwriting, and just life. I learned so much working with Keb’, and then to get the Grammy nomination in the category of Contemporary Blues made a big impact on me. I haven’t struggled with this so much, but whoever we’ve worked with, like labels and radio departments, have struggled with, “What’s our lane? What’s our genre?”
You could go to a music store back in the day, and they’d have a G. Love & Special Sauce record in the hip-hop section, or in another city, they’d have it under Alternative and Rock. No one ever knew and we never really fit into a box. So when we got the Contemporary Blues Grammy nomination, this felt perfect to me. It’s everything that I am. I’m rooted in the delta blues, but you can push that wherever you want to go with it. It’s a wide-open category. I decided to stay in that lane and had to think how to follow up from The Juice.
I’m from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and there’s always been a thing that there’s a Philadelphia, Mississippi, and that’s always been pretty cool to me. I felt like I needed to pay homage to the Blues that I’d been studying my whole life, and the concept was there. I just needed someone to help me bring it to life, and that person ended up being Luther Dickinson. A big part of the story is that his father, Jim Dickinson, produced my second record, Coast to Coast Motel, in 1995. Luther and I have known each other since we were kids and had been talking about doing something for years. Because Luther grew up in the musical community of North Mississippi, which is the Hill Country blues, and among Memphis musicians, he was able to tap into his vast network of local players who are internationally known.
Because over the past years, I’ve connected with a lot of the younger generation of Blues players, like Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, and Jontavious Willis, I invited those guys down. So it was both a spontaneous thing and a very thought-out project. Once we had a window of time where we were able to get down south during the pandemic, then it was just about reaching these people and inviting them into the studio. Most everyone was really excited to get into the studio and collaborate.
We posed everyone this test: Come to the studio with something like a hook, or a groove, or some lyrics, and let’s build songs from the ground up in the studio on the spot. It was that real-life, spontaneous, improvised session. That’s daunting at first, because you’re saying, “Let’s see what happens.” But it was such a supportive atmosphere, and everyone really showed what they could do. It was such a talented group of men and women that they really came through. Everybody stepped up.
AH: Did you also bring ideas in that you had before you took the whole trip down south, or was this purely on the fly for you too?
G. Love: For sure. My other musical partner on this journey was Chuck Treece. He’s a legendary Philadelphia musician who I’ve been working with for my whole career. We have a duo, and he’s the person I’ve been doing all these shows with. We stopped down in Tennessee on the way down for a couple of days, up in the Blue Ridge mountains. We did a writing session and came up with five or six tunes and some skeleton ideas. Some songs were fully developed and some were more like a sketch that we left open for the other collaborators to fill. Sure, it was spontaneous, but there was a good amount of preparation and pre-production that went into it.
If you take one track, like “Mississippi,” which is second on the album, that one features Alvin Youngblood [Hart], R.L. Boyce, and Speech from Arrested Development. The day that we knew that Alvin was coming in, we got that track fired up. I had my verses, and Alvin wrote his verses on the fly. Then R.L. Boyce came in late at night and threw an improvisational track over it. He just crushed it with the adlib vocals. Later, after we had the track pretty much realized, we shipped it out to Speech, and he put his verses on it in his studio. So it was like pieces of the puzzle and putting everything together.
AH: It’s really interesting to hear about people contributing their own voice and lyrics to different verses. Were you following other examples you’d seen of that kind of model?
G. Love: I’ve done all kinds of songwriting sessions and recording sessions. Everybody works differently. It reminds me of a writing session that I did with Kid Rock back in the day for a song that never ended up coming out. But I learned from Kid Rock during that session that for most of his stuff, he just goes into the studio and writes on the fly. Whereas when working with a guy like Keb’ Mo’, even though we did a lot of songwriting sessions and wrote very meticulously, with some songs taking shape over the course of years, literally, they were always written on the same track, like a working demo. They ended up becoming the actual album track.
The other part of it is that if you go in and work with great musicians and great writers, it doesn’t really matter how you do it. Greatness is going to come if people are feeling inspired and have something to say. Whether you are doing a songwriting session or writing in the studio, it all often happens really fast when people get inspired. It goes quickly. If it doesn’t, that’s when you’re having a problem. Even when I’m talking about Keb’ Mo’ and I writing a song over years, the initial burst of inspiration happened quickly. The thing that can go longer is really editing those lyrics and that track and letting the cream of each song rise to the top.
AH: Because there was such an improvisational element here, do you feel like the album captures specific moments in time, or do you feel more like it’s a traditional studio album of recorded music?
G. Love: When I first started making records, I always looked at them as a time capsule, like a snapshot, that generally encompasses a year or two of your life. It has the general atmosphere that our culture, as a whole, is living in during that time. But as I’ve been recording over the years, there’s an expectation that you want to make a record that’s a timeless, career-defining moment. There’s always that notion that you have the opportunity to make something that’s timely and timeless, and that you should reach for both. It’s got to speak to the times that we live in, but you want a piece of music that’s going to sound relevant and current 20 or 50 years from now. So the answer is: Both. That’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to capture the here and now, but we’re also trying to make songs that stand the test of time so that people can keep coming back to it.
AH: I can also see that in the sense of identity that you create for the album. Is the song “Love From Philly” particularly close to your heart given your origins?
G. Love: That one came out of the pandemic, because there was a big Philadelphia livestream concert called “Love From Philly” as a fundraiser event for musicians. I got tapped to do the theme song for it, so that’s how the chorus came about. Then I made it into my own song. That was one that we had been playing a lot leading into the studio, and because the record had a geographical element to it, the first song on the record had to be “Love from Philly,” and the second song had to be “Mississippi” [Laughs]. My verses are really kind of celebrating the city of brotherly love, and dropping that culture into it, and Chuck’s verses are about the road trip that we were on. We wanted to get an MC on this, and then we realized, “It’s got to be Schoolly D!” We called him and he was excited. We had him in the studio, and he wrote with us on the spot. It was such a fun part of the album. That’s a classic track.
Another Philly-centric song towards the end of the album is “The Philly Sound,” which is a spoken-word piece. It’s about the culture of Philadelphia street art and Hip-Hop that led to me becoming G. Love.
AH: Does creating this album feel like you’ve brought together the different aspects of your life and your two worlds more fully?
G. Love: Honestly, when I think about it like that, if making The Juice with Keb’ Mo’ was like a masterclass in the blues, Philadelphia Mississippi is me graduating with a Ph.D. in hip-hop and blues, and coming back and joining the two cultures that have birthed the music of G. Love. That is Philly hip-hop and the Hill Country blues of Mississippi. I’ve claimed it and made the correlation between hip-hop and the blues. When I look at those two types of music, from an academic perspective, The blues is probably the most important American music, which came from the plight of Black people in our country, but has been widely appropriated.
Hip-hop, during my lifetime, is the second birth of a truly American form of music, again from the plight of Black Americans, but this time in the Northern cities. When you look at blues and then you look at hip-hop, you have to make the connection that this is modern folk music and modern blues. I’m the first to admit that I’m one of the people who has appropriated Black music my whole career, but part of my goal is to always shine light on emerging artists and established artists in both of those cultures. I always want to learn from them, and I wear my influences on my sleeve, and pay respect to the music that I love. The only reason that I do both of those types of music is that when I was a young man, I fell in love both with blues and with hip-hop. I hope I do it right in lifting the culture up.
Thank you so much for chatting with us, G. Love. If you haven’t already checked out the album, you should. It’s a mesmerizing blend of hip-hop and blues. Find more info and tour dates here: https://philadelphonic.com