A key figure in the Los Angeles scenes, Josef Leimberg has been around the city’s musical landscapes for over two decades. From his involvement in the group Mad Kap, producing for a wide range of rappers, playing trumpet on well-known recordings, touring as part of tha Snoopadelics, to being one of the main contributors to Kendrick Lamar’s classic To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), his path is as versatile as the music he’s been involved in. In the past couple of years, he’s been an integral part of the ‘jazz renaissance’ coming out of Los Angeles, alongside Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, and Thundercat, with whom he shares roots in the Black arts community of Leimert Park.
We meet at the Iron Works studio in Eagle Rock, where we talk about his evolution as a hip-hop producer and his explorations in spiritual jazz. Emphasizing the importance of ‘showing growth in his craft’, he seems to have found direction by fusing jazz and hip-hop together as well as experimenting with world music traditions. This is also the occasion to discuss his upcoming album, The Archer.
What was your introduction to music?
My father played the trumpet. I thought that was amazing so, of course, I gravitated toward that. My mother taught herself how to play the piano – that was very inspiring as well. But outside of that, there were always records laying around and I got obsessed with records and turntables. DJing and the art of listening to music was pretty cool too. So yeah I think it was a combination of all those things.
I had some neighbors across the street who had a nice record collection. Everything from Run DMC to Duran Duran to George Clinton. All kinds of interesting things. Back in the ’80s, it wasn’t so taboo to listen to everything, from new wave to rock to hip-hop, everything was on the table.
At what point did you get involved in the music scene?
It kind of happened naturally. Even the friends I had in the ’80s were either playing instruments or rapping or trying to make records. So it was a natural thing to move in that direction.
You were DJing and playing the trumpet?
I was DJing. I was playing the trumpet. I started making beats at some point. I think it took many decades of going through all these different experimental phases with jazz and hip-hop, and DJing, scratching, playing my trumpet, and studying music to get where I’m at now. I still do some drum programming, some sampling here and there.
But you know I just try to be as slick as I can, as creative as I can be with it. So it doesn’t sound like somebody else’s shit or something redundant. I always try to keep it fresh, you know, I try to push it forward.
What is your first hip-hop memory from growing up in L.A?
I remember a friend of mine coming up to me with a boombox, and he was playing Malcolm McLaren. I thought it was the hippest shit ever. I was like, ‘What is that?’ and he was like, ‘AM Stereo KDAY 1580’. All the way on the end of the dial. You had to be in the right room to get KDAY where I lived. I was obsessed with recording mixes on KDAY. I remember recording LL Cool J live and Run DMC live. I might still have some of those tapes in the closet somewhere, in a shoebox or something. I used to record the radio religiously and try to capture all the newest stuff that was out. That’s before I was buying records. So KDAY was a big part of that.
Then my parents took me to see Wild Style [Ahearn, 1983]. When I saw the part where Grand Master Flash is going back and forth, I thought that was amazing. But the whole culture of the rapping, the breakdancing, the graffiti, and the beat-boxing connected with me. I used to beat-box when I was little so I connected with all the elements of hip-hop at a very young age. It was part of my generation. It was birthed while I was living, while I was growing. I remember when it was just funk and jazz, and then I remember when it became hip-hop.
Your first group was Mad Kap.
Mad Kap was not my baby. I joined something that already existed. A couple of rhymes and a couple of horn licks. I think I was still trying to find myself after Mad Kap. I started getting more into production and beats. I wasn’t really trying to be an artist but more trying to teach myself just how to make good music. The artistry comes after you do a little research and study to get better at it.
You were in Mad Kap but also connected with the South Central scene?
Most definitively. Most of the guys from Mad Kap lived in Pasadena. Then in L.A. you had the Freestyle Fellowship, The Pharcyde. You know that whole scene. So I would bounce around from Pasadena to L.A. I was like a wandering nomad who just tried to absorb as much energy from wherever it was happening.
The guys in Pasadena had their own thing going on. They would do artwork and graffiti. They were making beats on the SP-12 and it was pretty cool to see that. Wherever that was happening that’s where I was trying to be.
There’s already a jazz connection in Mad Kap. Were you into jazz in high school?
I was heavy into hip-hop and jazz. As much as I loved Public Enemy, I liked Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard just equally. So it’s always been a duality growing up with jazz and hip-hop. I always loved jazz. I didn’t know how to play it but I always loved it before I had a chance to play it. Playing in jazz ensembles in high school was definitively an opener.
After high school, you moved on to CalArts?
Yeah, I went to Hamilton high school and studied jazz. I was in jazz ensembles and all that kind of stuff. Then I went to CalArts. It really opened me up because they had Indian music ensembles and Gamelan. We did the Balinese Monkey Chant and it was amazing. I always enjoyed the African ensembles, the African drumming, and the African singing and dancing too. I was studying with Leo Smith up there as well. He really opened me up as far as jazz and the avant-garde and the experimental.
How did you become part of Snoop Dogg’s band, Tha Snoopadelics?
I was making some beats for Snoop. I was going to the studio and Terrace Martin mentioned that Snoop had a band and that they were putting a horn section together. So we were Snoop’s horn section for a little while and that was my first experience touring. For a lot of us it was our first experience touring. So it was like a training camp for what was to come for everybody.
But yeah, Snoop is the coolest man, and he’s funny. He’s funny as shit. So I got to make records with him and also play in his band. I’m forever grateful for him showing love like that.
Who else was in Tha Snoopadelics?
Kamasi Washington, Ryan Porter, Terrace Martin, Trevor Lawrence, Isaac Smith, D-Loc, Larrance from 1500 or Nothin’, Mars from 1500, Thundercat, Bubby Lewis. We were all Snoopadelics. So it’s interesting to see that we all played with Snoop at one point and now everybody is exploring their own freedom of expression. Whether it’s rock or jazz, everybody is getting into their own thing.
Did you meet these guys through playing with Snoop or did you know them already?
I’ve met some of the guys through Leimert Park and just the scene around the World Stage and 5th Street Dick’s, and other cats I met through playing with Snoop. I believe I met Terrace Martin in front of the World Stage – not the new World Stage but the old World Stage. We reconnected in the studio with Snoop 20 years later.
So it’s kind of a small circle of people who are from L.A. Musicians and producers have developed a production style. But I think it’s a natural transition for most musicians or DJs to become producers, composers, and arrangers.
How did you start composing?
Everything started to click when I put my band together about three years ago. It really opened my eyes to what I could do in the studio. I grew a lot since I released my first record Astral Progressions (2016). I now have over three hours of music for the next record, The Archer, and I feel really good about its cohesiveness.
Any specific direction for The Archer?
I’m tapping into some of the music that I love the most, which is jazz fusion and world music. I’m going outside the comfort zones I’ve already experimented with and touched on. I don’t feel like I’ve gone full into jazz until recently. Fusion is important because it’s a blend of everything together. Progressive rock is also important because it’s a blend of rock and jazz but also has classical influences. With this new record, I’m experimenting with Brazilian and Indian sounds. There are a lot of musicians on the record. I reached out to people that are on the same type of vibration.
What sparked that transition?
You know for many decades you just sample a lot of music and at some point, you want some tunes. You want to write a composition or an arrangement. Not even so much write it but just do it. Not everything has to be written in manuscript form to be produced or arranged. Astral Progressions was a pivot toward tapping into my potential, to see how creative I could be with my musicianship outside of sampling a record or recycling stuff.
No more loops?
Oh no. Getting away from samples was also part of my progression. I compose all of my music. A couple of people help me write every so often, but I’m very self-sufficient. Sometimes a piece will start with a little piano or some Rhodes. Sometimes it will start with ASR drum programming. Sometimes it might start from a chopped-up sample. But when I sample I try to find the most obscure progressive rock, jazz fusion record that nobody’s really hip to and sample it in a way that I’m making a new progression from it. I would never sample a 4 bar or 8 bar or even 2 bar loop. If I sample something, it’s a texture.
What made you move away from sampling?
I wanted to be more creative and tap into my potential. With samples, somebody is eventually going to find that sample that you found. You thought you were special until somebody else found it. But if you can do something creative and flip the sample into something totally new, you have mastered the art of flipping a sample or flipping some textures or sounds. J Dilla was excellent at this.
What was the inspiration for Astral Progressions?
I love spiritual jazz records and listening to Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders and Sun Ra always appealed to me. I see myself as that type of artist. Let’s bring some spirituality back into music because we have so much of the other side. Why not bring something beautiful to the table?
Are you part of the spiritual jazz movement?
I am trying to be an extension of that. I’ve experimented with a lot of different genres of beat-making and different styles of music, but this is where I round up. This is where I feel comfortable. This I where I feel I belong. Making spiritual jazz music and fusion – while incorporating hip-hop and R&B and a little rock and a little bit of this and a little bit of that – I love to fuse things. The big difference between what I was doing before and now is the live instrumentation. I’m not afraid to record live drums. Not everything has to be drum-programming and sound so computerized. I love 808. I love beat-making and the beat scene.
I also love live music and the individual musician that’s not just bringing a bunch of sounds to the program or a bunch of different samples from a record, but human beings who have 20, 30, or 40 years of experience. So when they come to the table with that expertise in the collective ensemble – the sky is the limit. That’s when the real magic happens.
How about Horace Tapscott and the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. How does that music resonate with you?
I was young and not familiar with his music but I had the honor of smoking some weed in the little side alley, next to the World Stage with Horace Tapscott. On any random day, you could walk to the World Stage and you might hear Billy Higgins playing. That was really special. I feel a deep connection to Leimert Park and the current West Coast jazz scene that’s going on with Kamasi Washington, Ryan Porter, Terrace Martin, and Thundercat. We’re all out here trying to push the music forward.
That’s interesting how the West Coast jazz scene connects to Snoop.
Even making beats for Snoop eventually led me to make beats for George Clinton, Suga Free, Kokane, and other amazing artists on the West Coast. I’ve worked with some very interesting people and that brought me back to my trumpet and live musicianship. I think it’s some of the best music I’ve ever made because I’m not pulling my melodies and ideas from records but from my soul. That is the ultimate expression – when you can manifest an idea into reality.