Anderson .Paak's Mission Is Freedom

Anderson .Paak headlines Red Rocks in June.
Anderson .Paak headlines Red Rocks in June. Michael Emery Hecker
When Anderson .Paak performed the jubilant, funky “Trippy,” from his 2018 album Oxnard, on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon earlier this year, it was millions of Americans' introduction to him. At 33 years old, .Paak’s an incredible songwriter, singer and drummer. He's an artist bringing unbridled joy back to hip-hop and R&B, evoking his heroes Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder.

“Everybody’s got their cause. Everybody’s got their purpose,” says .Paak, currently on tour with Earl Sweatshirt and Thundercat. “Hip-hop — there’s not a lot of freedom for black men. They can’t smile, or where they come from, it’s considered weak to express freedom. We’re told, ‘You can’t do this kind of music; you can’t be creative, build your own world, do your own thing and be happy.’ My whole thing is freedom.”

.Paak is from Oxnard, Calif., the child of an Asian-American mother born in South Korea during the Korean War and an African-American father whom .Paak hasn’t seen since he was seven years old. .Paak’s journey into adulthood was an adventure, playing drums in a church band, going through a divorce, teaching at a music school, working on a marijuana farm and experiencing homelessness at one point with his second wife and their son. His work as a recording and performing drummer — and also a producer, writer and much more — in Los Angeles, however, led to connections and apprenticeships with heavies like Shafiq Husayn and Dr. Dre, and a giant leap into a solo career.

“It was a process,” .Paak tells Westword. “Once I started writing my own music, I started messing around with rapping and singing more. When I moved out to L.A. when I was 21, I started taking it serious, trying to develop my scene. I was still doing a lot of drumming, because that was putting money in my pocket, so I thought for sure I was going to be a session drummer or a drummer for Beyoncé or some big name, and that would be the gig. But I was always writing my own music, and every year I got more serious about my own music.

“My mentor at the time was, like, ‘Yo, you should just chill on trying to do everything for everybody. Why don’t you just focus on making your music and producing your music, and not relying on anybody?’" .Paak recalls. "I was, like, ‘What? I wanna work with this and I wanna work with that,’ and he was like, ‘You should just develop a work ethic and lock yourself in a room and just work with you.’ And after that process, I had a bunch of music, and I was, like, a different person. I was like, ‘Okay, fuck it. I’m gonna change my name to Anderson .Paak [from Brandon Paak Anderson] and put some music out now.’ Not to say I wasn’t trying to produce and work with other artists, but I had to buckle down, shut everything down and just work on me for a while.”

Taking that “work with you” advice has led .Paak to release four critically acclaimed albums over five years, a Grammy win (for “Bubblin”) and a sold-out show at Red Rocks, which he headlines this Friday. He’s done it all with drums as his foundation.

“It helps me respect and understand where I’m at and things like that,” .Paak says, “and to last longer. No one’s gonna be cool forever or look cool forever. You’re not gonna be young forever. You’re gonna have to put in a lot of work and spread it out and get into other things. When you have love for the beginning influences of the music industry and you struggle up by learning to work for it, learning an instrument can help you spread your wings. That’s something that’s for sure put me in my home lane. I’m a player…not just a producer. So that’s something that’s for sure made me very unique.”

.Paak’s latest album, April’s Ventura, showcases his influences — from Motown, jazz and rap to gospel — and his love for collaboration. The album includes co-producers Dr. Dre, Pharrell Williams and more, along with vocal contributions from legends like André 3000, Smokey Robinson and the late Nate Dogg.

.Paak wonders if fans know how difficult it is to sing and play drums at the same time. “I don’t think people quite understand it,” he explains. “Especially in hip-hop, I can’t think of anyone [who is both lead singer and drummer], and there’s only been a few just in music in general. I don’t know if people even realize it or not, but I think it’s cool. I just hope it opens a lane up, in R&B and hip-hop, especially, for more artists to be playing and performing. I feel like we need more of that.

“I started [playing the drums] when I was like eleven or twelve. And then I started playing drums in church, and I was doing that until damn near thirty. All the artists I really looked up to coming up, they don’t really play, you know? So it gives me a different understanding of music.”

While .Paak doesn’t play the drums for his entire set on tour, playing the instrument was and is his first love, the spark that started it all for him.

“I still avidly love watching clips of drummers and finding new drummers,” .Paak says. “I love it. But there’s no time to lock down in a room anymore and just shred for hours like I used to do. But that’s why we did it so much when we did do it, because when I had that time, when I was going to music college, I would get it for hours and hours. Even now, we rehearse for hours and hours, and I realize, ‘Damn, I’m playing [drums] for more than half the show,’ so I’m getting my chops back slowly but surely. And every time I get a chance to link up with some of these drummers that I love, I ask for them to teach me something. I’ll find some time to practice once this shit is over, but it’s tough.”

Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals, with Earl Sweatshirt and Thundercat, 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 14, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison,
$29.50 to $350.
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Pittsburgh native Adam Perry is a cyclist, drummer and University of Pittsburgh and Naropa University alum. He lives in Boulder and has written for Westword since 2008.
Contact: Adam Perry