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In 'Lady Lady,' Masego Puts 'Trap House Jazz' On Display


Masego has been called a chameleon, a musical shapeshifter, the creator of a blueprint for a new kind of sound. That's because he's considered the architect of a genre - trap house jazz. It sits at the intersection of soul, jazz, dance music, R&B and hip-hop. And no two Masego shows are the same. At each performance, he makes a beat from scratch and creates a brand-new version of every song live. Now, 2018 has been a big year for Masego. He released his debut full-length album last month called "Lady, Lady." He's now on tour, and he was nice enough to come into our studios in Washington, D.C. to talk about his work and perform some songs from "Lady, Lady."

Masego, welcome. Thank you so much for coming.

MASEGO: Beautiful, Michel. Thank you. I appreciate being here.

MARTIN: Well, you're welcome. You call your movement trap house jazz, so I'm going to ask you to break it down. Why trap? Why house? Why jazz?

MASEGO: Yeah. When I was about 15 years old, I used to have a lot of jam sessions at my house. And all the kids would kind of come over, and I would kind of deejay some music that I discovered that month. And, after we jammed for a little bit, we kind of, like, looked around the room, and the characters and the people playing were, like, some really rough exterior people. You got this guy with a face tap playing guitar with the beautifulest (ph) chords you ever heard. Beautifulest - that's the new word of the day. Just - I mean, a lot of just grungy with lovely, you know?

And so we - my friend called it ignorance meets elegance. And he was, like, you know what? This sounds like trap house jazz. Like, you know, this jam session - we could probably cook drugs here, or we have a jam session. And so we were just joking about it, but I actually started running with it because it really was that. Like, I love the drums to really almost hurt you, and the chords would be almost making you cry. And it's kind of my mindset, how I approach all of my music.

MARTIN: Well, that's lovely. So let's hear something from "Lady, Lady." Why don't you play something for us, and then we'll talk some more. How about that? What do you want to play?

MASEGO: I have no idea. It's, like...

MARTIN: (Laughter) Well, pick something.

MASEGO: I think it all starts with the beatbox, but we'll figure out what song will come out of this. But it'll be something - probably "Lady, Lady" or "I Had A Vision."

(Beatboxing). (Playing keyboard). (Vocalizing). It's, like, I don't even love you - maybe just a little, a little. But I feel your rhythm. I don't know. I don't even love you - maybe just a little, a little. But I feel your rhythm, but I feel your rhythm. (Playing keyboard). Driving way too fast for my good, and that ain't right. You don't drive the same. And I don't want to play. Just you tell me, take off your cool. Baby, you ain't cool enough. Hey, I should hide from this. I just love to be alone and vibe with this. It's a sad boy paradox, I'm high on this. Whether I would feel alive or maybe rely on this. I say, I say, I say, I say I don't even love you - maybe just a little, a little. Yeah (vocalizing). (Playing saxophone).

MARTIN: I'm telling you, watching you - I feel like when I watch an aerialist. It was just, like, I know you know what you're doing, but I'm still scared. Are you scared up there?

MASEGO: It's like breathing at this point. I mean, reverb makes you less scared, too, so that dryness scared me for about two seconds. But, I mean, if you can sing, you can sing, you know?

MARTIN: Tell me about your musical influences. I read that your parents are both pastors.

MASEGO: Yeah. That's correct.

MARTIN: Right. Are they both from Jamaica?

MASEGO: No. My father's from Jamaica.

MARTIN: Your father's from Jamaica, and your mom is from...

MASEGO: She's from Georgia - Warner Robins, Ga.

MARTIN: So what did you listen to growing up?

MASEGO: I listened to gospel music because that was just our culture, you know? My parents are pastors. I had a lot of Kirk Franklin, lot of Donnie McClurkin, John P. Kee. My father played, like, a lot of old-school Jamaican like Mutabaruka and some cats I haven't even heard of. But I understood about Jamaican music that it was just a certain rhythm to it, and it made you want to participate. And then, with gospel music, it was always passionate and sincere. You know, you could tell. It was different than just playing some chords. Like, you just kind of get lost in it each time.

But, yeah, I mean, I loved my childhood. Honestly, like, there was so much music in the house. My mother had this huge binder of CDs from everyone she loved, like progressive gospel artists. You know, she loved like how Yolanda Adams was kind of R&B, but it was, like, still gospel.

MARTIN: Did they encourage your musical experimentation?

MASEGO: There was a balance. My mother was, like, definitely. Like, just do what you've got to do. Like, live your journey. My father was, like, don't be broke. All right? So the balance was beautiful. My father had this practicality to it and was, like, listen. You should put your face on your album artwork, all right? Don't do this whole secretive thing. Like, let them know who you are. And my mother was just, like, you know, make sure that you're doing something passionate and sincere. Like, her songwriting is phenomenal, so I would study her. So it was a cool balance.

MARTIN: And all the instruments that you play - I wish I could describe this setup for folks who can't be here with us. I mean, you've got keys, and you've got the sax.

MASEGO: There's a lot.

MARTIN: You're doing all of it. How did you learn all these things?

MASEGO: If you want to credit somebody, it would be YouTube university. In college, I would always be in my dorm room just studying different things. I was listening to the radio a lot growing up as well. And, in college, I got a credit card, so I was buying everything and returning it...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MASEGO: ...Just to learn about it - so every interface, every looper. I just kind of, like, got it for a certain time period until that 30 day wore off. And - but yeah, once I got my money, I actually bought everything, and I just became a collector. Like, I love instruments, even if I don't even know how to use it yet. I was just, like, this is shiny...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MASEGO: ...And from Japan.

MARTIN: And it's going to be mine (laughter).

MASEGO: Yeah. It's like that.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about the album. I mean, I'm told it's kind of a tribute to different women who've touched your life. I know you've told this story a million times, but I have to hear the story about the saxophone and why you picked up the saxophone. You even have a saxophone necklace that you're wearing. So tell me that story.

MASEGO: Yeah. When I was in middle school, there was this point we had to choose our related arts. It was, like, you're going to, like, paint, or you're going to do the band or had to choose something. And I had this substitute teacher that walked in one day with Naji Davis (ph) on her binder. And she just had me - I had a crush on her - like, huge crush. I was, like, OK. Here's the plan. I'm going to get married to her. I'm going to drop out of school. We're going to go to some island. And so, I mean, the only way to start my plan was to learn saxophone because that's all I knew about her. And, yeah, I went home, begged my mother to buy me a saxophone.

MARTIN: You didn't tell her why, did you?

MASEGO: No. I was, like, you know, I've got to do this saxophone thing in a related art assignments permission slip. But yeah. Like, I was, like, on the radio every day. I joined the swim team for no reason. But I was, like, this is going to get my lungs stronger. So I was just, like, focused on just winning this older woman's heart. And then - I didn't understand at that time that substitute teacher means she's not going to be there forever. So she definitely left by the time I got good enough to impress her. So I was just stuck with talent. And, you know, I was, like, man. What are you going to do with this?

MARTIN: Does she know that you inspired this amazing part of your career?

MASEGO: I don't think she showed up to, like, the picture day in the yearbook. Like, I tried this. Her name was Ms. Kajerik (ph).

MARTIN: Oh. Well, Ms. Kajerik, if you're listening, you did good (laughter).

MASEGO: Better listen to NPR - y'all lit.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. So, as we said, 2018's been such a big year for you. I mean, first of all, you've got - you've already gotten - what? - millions of views on YouTube. You're your own YouTube phenomenon. You know, you're in Vogue, and you're on tour. Is this what you hoped it would be?

MASEGO: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, I'm traveling the world with my friends. I'm laughing a lot. And, you know, it's amazing. I get to just do this on stage, and people just cheer, participate. I feel like the next stage is to really be able to do jam sessions with as many people as I want. That's amazing because I love when my friends can win. You know, it's weird when I'm to a point where I can afford first class, and my friends are, like, with their knees pressed to their stomachs, you know. So I want to find a way where I can bring my friends with me because, I mean, they have the best jokes. Like, rich people are not funny to me.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MASEGO: So I need my friends to come here. You know what I'm saying? I've got to calm down.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for everything. And anything else you want to tell us about the album? Any other inspiration?

MASEGO: I mean, I've had a lot of conversations, probably in passing - maybe an Uber driver to, like, someone at a sandwich shop. I ask Uber drivers, like, all the time - so, like, what is your opinion of modern love? And it's always cool what I get. You know, everybody has their own thing. They're just, like, well, I think someone you can just be silent with. And then this one woman told me, it's successfully implanting need in another soul. And I was, like, OK. You're deep for an Uber driver. Five stars for you.

You know, so I've just heard a lot of cool things. I like to see what people say because, you know, love is a lot different nowadays with option paralysis being a thing. So I've just - I love conversation. Let's just talk about it and see, you know, what different types of love there are out there. I just love hearing different people's journeys so you know that it's not a one size fits all. It's not you walk somewhere, and then someone just proposed to you or whatever.

So I love that, especially being in my field where half of it is, like, I'm a southern person - you know, a sap and just love the simple life. And, the other hand, I have this necklace on and hand (unintelligible). So it was, like, I wanted the album to be a representation that I could choose any path. And I'm a human. I'm not just, like, the perfect gentleman or this savage individual. I'm just, like, a person making decisions.

MARTIN: Well, play something else for us.

MASEGO: We'll see what we got. It's literally off the top of my head.

MARTIN: OK. So this is what we're going to go out on. That is Masego. His debut album, "Lady, Lady," was released last month. He was nice enough to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C. Masego, thank you so much for stopping by. And I want to hear whatever's on your mind right now.

MASEGO: I can't wait to see what it is.

(Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.