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Play It Forward: Thanksgiving Edition, Pt.2


In this season of gratitude, we are taking a deep dive into the music that artists are thankful for with our series Play It Forward. Yesterday, we heard a chain linking one artist to another. And when we left off, the singer Nick Hakim was about to tell us why he's inspired by the New Age pioneer Laraaji.


NICK HAKIM: And I am completely just infatuated with the world that he has created and the amount of music that he has just composed. And it feels like an absolute stream of consciousness. The first thing I heard was "Vision Songs, Vol. 1."


LARAAJI: (Singing) This is where this is going on. This is where this is taking place. This is how this is going on. Is this very clear?

SHAPIRO: His own website describes him as a musician, mystic and laughter meditation practitioner, so he's clearly so much more than just a composer.

HAKIM: Exactly.


HAKIM: And I love that because he actually said something incredible in this Record Magazine interview. He said that laughing opens the singing voice, which makes me understand that he has a lot of knowledge about how to use his body and how to connect in different ways to yourself and outside of yourself.

SHAPIRO: He's old enough to be your grandfather. He's about 50 years older than you. Is there something about looking up to an older generation of musicians that...

HAKIM: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Teaches you something you don't learn from your contemporaries?

HAKIM: Absolutely. You know, the music industry is very fickle and kind of gross. And so I just feel like he represents a mentality that I want to keep within myself.

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to go to Laraaji next. So what would you like to say to him?

HAKIM: I would like to say thank you. I've learned a lot from you. I appreciate every album that I've heard. And I would love to make music one day. And just thank you. I really appreciate what you represent and what you do.

SHAPIRO: Nick Hakim's new album is "Will This Make Me Good."

Thank you so much for talking with us.

HAKIM: Thank you so much.


SHAPIRO: And Laraaji joins us now from Harlem. Welcome to Play It Forward.

LARAAJI: Yes, welcome forward.

SHAPIRO: Well, first, what's your reaction to what we just heard from Nick Hakim?

LARAAJI: Touching. And it's always soothing and confirming to hear the voice of a person who's been influenced or impacted by the music that the spirit has brought through me.

SHAPIRO: He described your music as feeling like a stream of consciousness.


SHAPIRO: I mean, you say it's the music that the spirit has brought through you. Does making it feel that way for you, like a stream of consciousness?

LARAAJI: Yes, I relate very well to that, being in the moment and letting it flow. I feel that that's mostly what it's like, including the piano pieces I've just done - being in the moment, not so much focused on what the structure is going to be but let - I call it celestial structure - spontaneously unfold.


SHAPIRO: And if I'm not mistaken, the piano was the first instrument you ever learned. So did building this album around piano music feel like a return to something from your childhood?

LARAAJI: It feels like taking a dream off of the shelf. And I guess in the back of my mind, I fantasize about doing a piano album. And playing the piano in a church, an empty church, felt like a connection to my first experience of piano, which was in a church.


SHAPIRO: Can you just paint a picture for us of that world? What decade are we in? What city are we in where you're this kid playing the piano in the church?

LARAAJI: Yes. It's about 1952 or '53 in Second Baptist Church of Perth Amboy, N.J. We had in our church people from the South who had emigrated from the South, so we had a lot of Southern energy in the church. And the preacher was more of, like, sometimes a very fiery preacher. But it was always centered in something that had to do with the Bible or with the character, the person called Jesus.

SHAPIRO: And so when did that musical experience tied to the Baptist Church become something tied to the spirituality that you practice today? What was that transition like?

LARAAJI: I realized by the way people were responding to my music that this musical instrument or my musical direction was supporting people in having meaningful internal experiences - soothing, relaxing, nurturing, releasing, uplifting.


SHAPIRO: Laughing is a key part of your practice as a musician.


LARAAJI: ...And, again, inhaling. And let the entire breath be a laughter while we are incorporating our water body. (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us about the connection there?

LARAAJI: Well, laughter has always been the juice of my life in growing up in a family that was very laughter-friendly - uncles, aunts, cousins. So somewhere in high school, when I began exploring comedy, writing comedy and then into college, performing with various comedy teams...

SHAPIRO: I'm sorry. You were a comedian before or while you were a musician? I was totally unaware of that.


SHAPIRO: Really?

LARAAJI: When I came from Howard University to New York where I pursued standup comedy - started out at...


LARAAJI: ...The Bitter End, Cafe Wha? and the Hootenanny and then got booked into Apollo Theater and started touring around some parts of the world with something called the Job Corps entertainment troupe.

SHAPIRO: And what made you think that could be incorporated into this sort of ambient, mystical music that you were making?

LARAAJI: The laughter led me to practicing laughter meditation. And when I heard about it, I thought that was quite unusual to laugh when you get out of bed in the morning or before getting out of bed, to laugh for 15 minutes with your eyes closed. And I tried that exercise in the early '80s, when I - after hearing about that. And I thought, how cool is this?


LARAAJI: Laugh in your first breath. Let your first breath be flooded with laughter. Let laughter flood through all your breath. Laugh. Laugh a lot. Laugh often.

SHAPIRO: Laraaji, it's now your turn to tell us about a musician who you are thankful for. So who would you like to introduce us to?

LARAAJI: Well, Mia Doi Todd is a musician that I've had an opportunity over the last three or four years to be in close contact with.


MIA DOI TODD: (Singing) Come on, summer, give me a smile.

LARAAJI: Because of myself and my partner, we've traveled to California quite a bit. And a friend of a friend got us a place to stay so we wouldn't have to deal with hotel expenses. And one of those places was at the home of Mia and her family. And so I got to know Mia's voice - soft, gentle - and got to know some of her album work. And one of the songs that sticks out very clearly when I think about her is "My Baby Lives In Paris."


TODD: (Singing) My baby lives in Paris far from the Eiffel Tower. In his arrondissement, 19 lilies flower.

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to go to Mia Doi Todd next. And so what would you like to say to her?

LARAAJI: I'd like to say (vocalizing).


SHAPIRO: Is that a code? Is she going to know what that means?



LARAAJI: And I say that her sweet, silky, soft, patient, kind energy has transformed my experience of California.

SHAPIRO: Well, Laraaji, it has been a pleasure talking with you.

Thank you so much for joining us today.

LARAAJI: Thank you, Ari.


TODD: (Singing) He buys cigarettes downstairs.


SHAPIRO: And Mia Doi Todd is with us now from Los Angeles.

Hello there.

TODD: Hi, Ari. Thanks so much for having me on the show.

SHAPIRO: You know, in more than a dozen episodes of Play It Forward, I have never heard someone deliver quite so strange a message as that, like, rasberry from Laraaji (laughter).

TODD: I know exactly what he meant. I've spent a lot of time with him, and it's been so wonderful. We've actually got to make music together, and he's such an enlightened being. And just being around him, you get this great aura. And he makes you laugh. He's such a comedian, too. And he likes to break through feelings of awkwardness with just, like, a raspberry to make you laugh.

SHAPIRO: I love that.


TODD: (Singing) Maybe we should spend some time together under the sun.

SHAPIRO: When he talked about your music, he described it as romantic. Is that how you think of it?

TODD: Yes. I've made a bunch of romantic albums. I think my worldview is full of pink glasses, you know? You have a lot of romance in my music, though my new album deals with more motherhood and, like, a maternal love. So it's ventured away from just purely romance.

SHAPIRO: You also released a new track called "Take What You Can Carry."


TODD: (Singing) Take what you can carry. Take what you can carry.

SHAPIRO: I understand it connects with your own family's experience.

TODD: Yes. My mother and all of our family was interned during World War II in the Japanese American internment camps, and it had a big impact on our family, of course. So I wanted to make a song about it.


TODD: (Singing) Look at sister Mary with a baby in each arm, another in her belly. How will she keep them from harm?

There was some legislation in California that recognized the California legislature's part in that unfortunate thing that happened, so I wrote a reggae song. Reggae's, like, traditionally a kind of protest music. So I wrote a song called "Take What You Can Carry" about the internment camps, and this amazing dub musician Scientist did the mix on it. So I really love that track.


TODD: (Singing) By order of the president, so-called president of the United States, to hell with the environment, environment. We'll no longer regulate.

I wrote the song, actually, right after there were some big fires in Malibu. And some friends - they lost their homes. And it was really another take-what-you-can-carry kind of situation.

SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.

TODD: So that message of - pertaining to the Japanese American internment camps actually has a wider range because there'll be so much displacement with the state of the environment. So there's going to be a lot of migration in the future.


TODD: And that take what you can carry - and then when the sort of unrest started to develop in LA again this year and there was looting, it reminded me of the the riots that we'd had in LA when I was in high school. And it was another take-what-you-can-carry moment where, you know, people were looting stores. And so that phrase, it pertains to a lot of different things.


SHAPIRO: Mia Doi Todd, I don't know if you're aware of this, but you and I were in college at the same time. And you were a couple years...

TODD: Are you serious?

SHAPIRO: ...Ahead of me. And I have a really...

TODD: Oh, my God.

SHAPIRO: ...Vivid memory of sitting on the floor of a chapel and you playing music on a guitar and this just really beautiful, quiet, meditative moment.

TODD: Oh, that's amazing. Yeah, I used to do concerts in Dwight Chapel at Yale.


TODD: And I think I started a whole movement to use that space in that way, and it carried on after I had graduated.

SHAPIRO: Amazing.


TODD: (Singing) Close the curtains. Let's stay home after all.

SHAPIRO: Well, Mia Doi Todd, it's your turn to play it forward and tell us about someone whose music you're thankful for. Who would you like to introduce us to?

TODD: I would like to bring up Thundercat.


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) I just bought a crib on top of the hill. And I bought a brand-new ride. Am I keeping it real?

TODD: Truly a musical genius, and he's someone from LA like myself.

SHAPIRO: What inspires you about his music?

TODD: He is an amazing bass player first and foremost. I have a soft spot for the bass. As a singer, your body is the instrument. And when you sing, you can feel the tone.


TODD: For me, as a soprano, it's mostly in my head and my chest. But bass frequencies, they move the heart and the core. So I just love the bass. And Thundercat is a genius bass player - super-lyrical like Jaco Pastorius. And then he started singing with that sweet tenor voice and putting out records of songs that are so heartfelt and honest and funny, too.

SHAPIRO: For listeners who aren't familiar with his music, what track of his would you like us to play?

TODD: Let's play "Them Changes." That's the quintessential Thundercat jam.


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Nobody move. There's blood on the floor, and I can't find my heart. Where did it go? Did I leave it in the cold? So please give it back 'cause it's not yours to take.

SHAPIRO: We're going to go to Thundercat next, so what would you like to say to him?

TODD: Hi, Thundercat. It's Mia. I hope you're well these days. Thanks for being so awesome, so original and honest, realizing your artistic vision, following the way of the warrior on the music path. You're really inspiring. I put on your records, and I don't feel lonely. Even in these crazy times, I feel like everything's going to be OK. Thank you for shining so bright, Thundercat. I wish you the best.

SHAPIRO: Well, Mia Doi Todd, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much.

TODD: Thanks so much for having me.


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Do you mind if I wild out a little?


SHAPIRO: And Thundercat joins us now.

Welcome to Play It Forward.

THUNDERCAT: Thank you for having me. That was - that was very sweet.

SHAPIRO: What do you think of what you just heard from Mia Doi Todd?

THUNDERCAT: I think that was - it was a little slightly overwhelming, you know? It's...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

THUNDERCAT: I appreciate it beyond reason. It makes me feel better about everything a bit right now.


THUNDERCAT: That was very sweet of her to do that.

SHAPIRO: What's it like to hear that people are listening to your music and feeling less lonely?

THUNDERCAT: It's trippy. It's pretty trippy, you know? It's so weird how it translates. I feel like it's - sometimes, you don't know how it's going to translate. So it's always like a bit of a - there's a bit of a surprise when, you know - when it - when and if it does like that, you know? I don't - I don't know because a lot of the time I feel like it's more just me in my head, you know?


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Sometimes there's regret. It is what it is. It couldn't be helped.

SHAPIRO: This album that came out in April is called "It Is What It Is." What does that sentence mean to you now?

THUNDERCAT: It means ups and downs and strikes and gutters. And it's kind of like the good and the bad, you know? It kind of goes hand in hand. And I don't know, it's - it tends to be a bit funny for me now, you know, where it's kind of like when there is no answer, it just is what it is, you know? It's like, (laughter) - like, what are you going to do, you know?


THUNDERCAT: But, yeah, it's a bit more of a - it feels a bit more comedic for me at this point, for sure.


SHAPIRO: It's interesting that you say comedic. I mean, Mia Doi Todd described your music as heartfelt and honest and funny, too. And those are three words that I don't often tie together, but they do really describe your music. How important is humor to the songs that you write?

THUNDERCAT: It's, you know - it's very, very heavily entangled in there, to be honest - the comedy. And I don't know. It's just - it's something that I've always thought that was important ever since I was a kid, you know, to laugh. And, you know, being able to laugh is, like, one of the best feelings ever.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the track on this album that, I think, has the most overt, outright surface comedy, which is "Dragonball Durag."


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) I feel kinda...

(Laughter) "Dragonball Durag."


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Baby girl, how do I look in my durag? Would you tell me the truth?

Well, (laughter) it has a pretty - it has a pretty funny story behind it. There was a person I was dating a while ago. And I remember that it was like I - sometimes you don't - you never know the things that makes - that attracts the other person to you, you know? You never know. I was just kind of lounging in the house in my durag. (Laughter) And I remember the look in the - in the person I was with. I remember the look in their eyes. And I was like, why is she like - what's going on here?


THUNDERCAT: And she said it to me. She was like - she liked how I looked in my durag.


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Endlessly.

(Laughter) You know...

SHAPIRO: What you thought was your fashion weakness was actually your fashion strength.

THUNDERCAT: (Laughter) Yeah. It's like, you know, she liked it. And, you know, the rest is history.

SHAPIRO: Just before we started this recording, you were talking about your cat making a mess on the floor. And there is a line in this song - I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good.


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) I may be covered in cat hair, but I still smell good. Baby, let me know...

Oh, my God. If any - I feel like that's the most literal statement I've ever said...


THUNDERCAT: ...In my life. That's going to be on my - that's going to be on my headstone.


THUNDERCAT: (Singing) Let me know, how do I look in my durag? I'm trying to get intimate.

SHAPIRO: Well, Thundercat, it's your turn to Play It Forward and tell us about an artist who you're thankful for. And because this is the finale of our second season, this is going to be the last link in the chain. So who do you want us to go out on?

THUNDERCAT: I'm going to go ahead, and I'm going to go ahead and say Louis Cole.


LOUIS COLE: (Singing) Never guess and never know. Losing everything you own.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about him.

THUNDERCAT: Man, Louis Cole is, I think, one of Los Angeles's greatest musicians. And saying perfectionist is like - that's not it. That's not it. It's one of those things where he's - he is 100% in control of what he's doing.


COLE: (Singing) A bolt of lightning from the blue, yeah. Now it's really clear to you. Things may not...

SHAPIRO: Tell us about a track of his for people who aren't familiar with his music. What can we play to introduce people to him?

THUNDERCAT: There's a specific tune from a group that he has called KNOWER. And, I mean, I know I'm not supposed to cuss on air, but I think the title of the song is "[Expletive] The Makeup, Skip The Shower."


KNOWER: (Singing) There is nothing to improve me. This is not a [expletive] movie. I am not a superhero.

THUNDERCAT: And that was one of the first moments I got a chance to really fall in love with Louis Cole's music.


KNOWER: (Singing) This is not what I agreed on. This is not what I agreed on.

SHAPIRO: What do you hear when you listen to this?

THUNDERCAT: I'm hearing colors flying. I'm hearing Genevieve's voice. And it's mostly - it's Genevieve's voice.

SHAPIRO: That's Genevieve Artadi, the singer.

THUNDERCAT: Yes. That's Genevieve Artadi. And it's one of those things where the progressions happening...


KNOWER: (Singing) Repetitious, repetitious, repetitious, repetitious, repetitious.

THUNDERCAT: ...The way it's moving, the speed it's moving at - it's very simple. It feels very simple, but is extremely complicated.


COLE: (Singing) You always pick up your phone.

SHAPIRO: Well, what would you like to say to Louis Cole of the duo KNOWER?

THUNDERCAT: I would like to say, I love you, man. I'm excited to see where you're going, where you'll take things all the time. And keep creating, man. You're - what you're doing is definitely changing the world. Just keep going.

SHAPIRO: Thundercat's latest album is called "It Is What It Is." Thank you so much for talking with us today.

THUNDERCAT: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: You can find all of the conversations in our series Play It Forward at npr.org.


COLE: (Singing) Glowing in my dark room. I don't always understand... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.