How the Roots’ Ray Angry got over

We spoke with Questlove’s right-hand keyboard, organ and synthesizer wizard ahead of the Roots’ Jazz Fest closing show on Saturday.

Yes, his given name is actually Ray Angry.

But the highly sought-after keyboard, organ and synthesizer wizard — who has been a regular member of the Roots both in the studio and on late night television with Jimmy Fallon for over a decade — is an ecstatically happy guy. 

Why wouldn’t he be? He’s worked hard for it.

His open-mindedness both toward opportunities and challenges in the music game, from the classroom to the industry to stages all over the map, might be Ray Angry’s truest gifts, right alongside his talent.

Names like Marsalis, Jagger, Aguilera, D’Angelo and Ronson are only a small sample of the references on his world-class resume. And that’s not even counting who has sampled his work. 

Born in Albany, Georgia, raised in Miami, and a graduate of Washington, D.C.’s Howard University Music Department, Angry found himself playing and learning alongside musical heroes before he was barely out of college.

“I didn’t play jazz. I grew up playing gospel music, that’s my background,” Angry said by phone from New York on Wednesday. 

“It was when I got to D.C., I got into playing jazz. And it was because of Wynton Marsalis. Everything for me leads back to Wynton. Listening to him and Kenny Kirkland and Branford (Marsalis) got me into jazz,” he said.

“These guys were my heroes. And (working with him) got me into taking music very seriously.”

This Saturday, Ray Angry performs with the Roots as they bring the Montreal International Jazz Festival’s 42nd edition, and its nine-day run, to its grand conclusion. 

The Roots, festival regulars since the late ’90s, have not played Jazz Fest since 2011. Their free, outdoor show is outgoing festival programmer Laurent Saulnier’s final gift to the city before hanging his hat. 

Ray Angry opened up about his ambition in modern music; finding his way to the Roots and what Questlove has taught him; his relationship to late Roots manager Richard Nichols; and composing an absolutely iconic piece of the band’s music in five minutes flat.

For all the Roots fanatics and Jazz Fest lovers out there, here’s a glimpse at how Ray Angry got over. 

Darcy MacDonald: So first of all, thanks for doing this on short notice. And please explain your connection to the Roots.

Ray Angry: My connection with them is very random. When I graduated from Howard University, just like every other kid, I wondered if I should move to New York. 

“There are so many musicians up there,” you know? “Will I ever make it?” 

So I said fuck it and I moved. And I just started to do my stuff on the music scene. I don’t know how they heard about me, but their manager, Richard Nichols, invited me to do a set with Ahmir (Thompson, aka Questlove) for a commercial. Something to do with Universal. That was my first time meeting Ahmir and nothing came of the commercial or the session. But that was my initial meeting. 

Then (Nichols) again hired me to do a recording session with Joss Stone. So then that led to me becoming Joss Stone’s musical director. That was my first major session in New York City, out of college. I was working with Nile Rodgers, Betty Wright and Angie Stone on this particular session, (with) this allstar band. So that was my first connection with the Roots and the music industry. 

Years later, the Roots got Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and they used to host these jam sessions at the Highline Ballroom. One of my friends at the time said I should come down and play with these guys.

And that’s how it happened. I got reconnected with Ahmir and the Roots. And as we did these sessions, they were like, “Hey man, can you come back next week? Can you come back the week after?” 

I just became an instant member of the band, playing with them constantly. And then playing with them on Late Night

As a result of working on Late Night, they had the album they were working on. At the time they were working on How I Got Over. This was like 2008. 

So this is crazy. My first recording session with the Roots was to work on How I Got Over, and they needed interludes. So I go to the studio with Ahmir and Richard. I’m asking them all these questions and Ahmir’s like, “Just play.” (laughs)

I’m like, okay. So I start playing. And the very first thing I play is “A Peace of Light,” which is this jazzy, vocal keyboard sound that’s in this keyboard by Roland. 

So I play this sound and it became this iconic sound that, years later, Kendrick Lamar ended up sampling. He sampled this thing that I wrote in five minutes. You know? My first session with Ahmir and Kendrick Lamar ends up sampling it. 

It was for his record called “The Heart Pt.2.” I didn’t know he sampled it, and Ahmir didn’t know. My friend Amanda Seales, who’s this big TV personality now, was the one that said, “Hey, Kendrick Lamar sampled your song!” 

Ahmir and I were so happy. It was just really cool.

And so, anyway, that’s my connection with the Roots. From there on, I’ve just been collaborating with Ahmir on a bunch of film and television stuff. We did Inside Amy Schumer together, I helped write the theme song for that show and it birthed (an ongoing work relationship) with Amy. 

I’ve done so many cool things with (the Roots). Ahmir and I did the music for the Oscars last year during the pandemic. That’s the short version of it, but it’s been an incredible ride. 

DM: There’s a lot to unpack there. When Richard Nichols, RIP, brought you in, what era was that? And wasn’t Questlove involved in that Joss Stone record, too?

Ray Angry: Richard called me up in the early 2000s. And Questlove was involved in The Soul Sessions. But I worked her first actual album, Mind, Body & Soul.

DM: But around that same time, you’ve already worked with Mick Jagger and written for Christina Aguilera. And you said earlier, “All roads lead to Wynton.” 

And that’s wild, too, because (Marsalis’s brother) Branford was the band leader on The Tonight Show in the ’90s, too!

Ray Angry: Yeah man! And it’s wild also because when I was like 18, I used to hang out with (late pianist) Kenny Kirkland when he was doing The Tonight Show

He was one of my mentors. One of my favourite musicians and favourite keyboardists. Because he basically was the embodiment of classical music and jazz. I was just enamoured with the fact that he was able to do so many different styles. I always wanted to emulate that.

The way I looked at the music industry, because I was in the classical world as a young musician and I saw the politics…as I got older, I thought, man, if I could just play all of these different styles, I’ll always work. 

And you’re looking at my discography, and I’ve always worked! Because one day I’m playing jazz, and the next day I’m playing with the Boys Choir of Harlem. 

And then doing a session and going on tour with Meshell (Ndegeocello). That’s when I learned about synthesis and programming keyboards. I always wanted to be a versatile musician. Because I felt like in the music industry, if you put yourself in a box, they keep you in a box. I never wanted to fall into that. 

Plus, music and technology are always changing. I always sort of have never wanted to be comfortable. Like, “Ooh, I’m playing with the Roots!” And then I’m not practicing and so on. 

I still practice and study. Right now, I’m writing my first symphony. It’s called “Black Athena.” It premieres November 19. It’s actually not a symphony, it’s an original orchestral work. And it’s for a commission I received from the Lexington Symphony Orchestra. And I got that gig from a tour manager for the Roots’ brother, who is the conductor of the Lexington Symphony Orchestra. 

It’s really great to work with people who understand how versatile you are, and can see it. With the Roots, Richard Nichols was like, “Hey, you’re a music producer.” And he gave my first music producer credit. Now one of the tour managers is like, “Man, you can compose orchestras. Why don’t you do this?”

It’s been such a journey, and people have really pushed me to always learn and be better. And Wynton is one of those guys. And so many other people. 

DM: Who ever sees that coming in their life?

Ray Angry: You know, in the early 2000s I would think like, “Wouldn’t it be great to work with an orchestra?” I did say this early on. But I never imagined that I’d be able to do it, or have an opportunity do it. And now, it’s like…it’s wild. 

So now, I’ve been taking lessons since November with an incredible teacher who just took me under his wing, sharing his love for orchestration. When you’re learning a new skill like that, who loves it as much as you want to learn it, it just makes the learning process go by quicker, if that makes any sense at all. I’ve been soaking up all this information on orchestration, and reading and studying and writing. 

With (“Black Aethna”) we’re going back in time. It’s an exploration of power throughout the ages. It’s a work in three parts, about the development of power throughout time and the triumph of those who are oppressed as they take back their own power. 

DM: Heavy duty. 

But wait, I’ve gotta go back. So you composed that part on (How I Got Over intro track “A Peace of Light”) and you said it took you five minutes. And I’m getting goosebumps, because 12 years later when, I put that album on, that intro is still some next shit. 

And the Roots body of work isn’t just the most consistent body of work in hip hop. It’s one of the most consistent catalogues in music, ever. Every album is a success.

Ray Angry: It’s a long game! (laughs)

DM: It’s not like I’ve ever thought the Roots would put out a bad record. They’ve had a couple that are more experimental and maybe a little less cohesive but those are still excellent albums. 

But How I Got Over comes along about 17 years after their first album. I mean, I’m just one small-time music critic. But I remember giving that album a 10/10. And I haven’t given too many things a 10/10 in my career. 

(Village Voice chief music editor and music journalism legend) Robert Christgau called it the Roots’ “most substantial” album and place it at number one on his list of the Top 25 albums of that decade. 

That’s insane man.

Ray Angry: That is insane. And I mean, I didn’t write that (intro) out. I sat down and it’s the first thing I played. 

(We both start humming and re-enacting the keys and vocal melodies from “A Peace of Light”)

Oh my God! (laughter) And the crazy thing for me is, when I was finished writing it, I was like, “Hey, Ahmir… that cool?” 

Because he never says anything. He’s just like, “Cool, can you add bass to that?” 

“Yeah! Okay, is that cool?” 

“Yeh yeh yeh, can you add strings to that?”

“Sure! Is that cool?” 

“Yeh yeh yeh yeh…yeah, I think we’re good man!”

And that’s the beauty of working with Questlove. With him, I don’t have the opportunity to second guess myself. 

DM: I want to ask you about Richard Nichols and your experience with him What was he like? I’ve only ever read or heard cool things about him. 

As much as I’d love to some day interview Ahmir or whatever, I regret that I never got to speak to Richard Nichols. I know he was a special person.

Ray Angry: Man, listen. I’d say this to you. I would not be writing a symphony right now it weren’t for Richard Nichols. 

He influenced me in so many ways. Because not only was he a creative genius. He was also a visionary like I’ve never met. He was a guy who could look at something and see all of the possibilities and then make a choice based off of that, and never miss. 

All of the records I did with the Roots, he producing, testing all the records, fixing vocals. He was a genius, and he hands on. He was the one of the greatest managers I’ve ever met in my life. And one of the greatest creative geniuses, too. He would curate shows, and get eclectic groups of people together.

He was so dedicated to creativity, man. When I was working the Roots last album, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, I didn’t even know he was sick! We would talk for hours on the phone. Then we wouldn’t talk for a while. And then he wouldn’t call me back, and I wouldn’t take it personal. 

But then I found out he was sick. 

And I was literally working with him on video, on the Roots last album, from his hospital bed where he was getting his treatement. 

That’s who Richard Nichols was. He played the long game, not the short game. Consistency is key. And he was consistent. The most honest person I’ve ever met in my life. 

DM: You know what I love, Ray? When we started talking, you got super excited about Kendrick sampling you. Meanwhile, I’m talking to a guy who worked on that albu, and to a guy who was the musical director on a Michael Jackson tribute, and who has done all this amazing stuff. 

And you’re just excited that Kendrick sampled you. That’s how I know you love what you do.

Ray Angry: I’m excited, genuinely. Because when I hear things like that, in my mind I’m like, “Oh shit, that mean Kendrick wants to work with me.”

My dream is to make music that sort of changes the scope of the music industry. Where musicians aren’t just sort of like, dollars. They’re more like the crisp $50 bill or the crisp $100 bill. They’re not like, you know, the $5 bill that you just ball up and go, “Hey man, do you want $5?” 

I want musicians to be paid well, but also to get credit for their work. There are all these brilliant musicians that died (without that).I just want to be able to do my part and also help musicians change the way they think of themselves, and not to put yourselves in a box. I tried so many years to never be comfortable, and always learn, and always grow. I want to impart knowledge on young kids who came up like me, and they don’t know what the music industry entails, and share that. And that’s pretty much how I get down. 

The beauty of it all, as I get older, is that you can’t forget to have fun and enjoy the journey. Because shit’s gonna be fucked up, you know? You’re gonna always be disappointed. 

I have this event I started called Producer Mondays. I do it every Monday. I’ve done it since 2018 and I haven’t missed a Monday. It’s this night that I curate, and it’s not a jam session, it’s a writing session. 

And I basically have people writing in the moment, just like I wrote ”A Peace of Light.” And experience what that’s like with different musicians. And it’s phenomenal. We’re not jamming, we’re writing whole songs, we make the bridge, and all of it. And we recorded a whole album just like that that I cannot wait to release this stuff. And I want to create a TV show based around that concept. 

And I’m saying that to say, when I was about to graduate, I was auditioning for Mary J. Blige. I wanted to be on the gig. 

(I had) dropped out of school and gone on tour with Mary J and Bel Biv Devoe and I had toured with (another band.) So I got a taste of the road, then I went back to school, got my degree and then I was done, and then I was like, ”What am I gonna do?” And I wanted this gig with Mary J. Blige because she was hot at the time and everybody wanted this gig.

And I auditioned. And I didn’t get it. I was so hurt. 

But let me tell you something, after that, I played with Mary J. Blige at least three or four times. And then I recently played with her and the Roots at the Roots picnic. And when I tell you, it’s as if I was transported back to the ’90s. That’s how crazy that gig was. And I finally got what I wanted, years later. 

You know what I mean? You just gotta stay in it. 

If someone tells you, ”Man, you play like shit. You’re not gonna make it.” 

You just gotta keep going. ”Thanks man,” and go home and practice. 

”You can’t write!” Cool. Go home and practise writing. People will help you get better. They’ll tell you what’s wrong. 

I remember when I was about 19 being at this little jazz festival and there was a master class. They asked who wanted to go up and play, so I went up and played. Afterwards this guy told me, ”Hey — watch your left hand.” 

Cool! I went home and watched my left hand. 

Now you heard, ”Doo-dah-deh-duhn-dehhn” (intoning “A Peace of Light”) 

I did that with my left hand. 

”What else you got?” That’s how I look at life. There are problems, and then there are fuckin’ solutions. I’m gonna find the solution. ■

The Roots close the Jazz Fest at the TD Stage (Place des Festivals) on Saturday, July 9, 9:30 p.m., free

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