Christian Scott And Vic Mensa Open Up About Their Powerful New Collab, ‘Freedom Is A Word’

Christian Scott grew up running around New Orleans’ venerated Preservation Hall, playing in the back room and listening to the in-house vinyl collection way before he ever got into jazz himself. “I grew up in here and I’ve been coming here since I was six, seven years old,” Scott remembered, while we sit cozy in the venue’s welcoming back house, waiting for a packed night of music to begin. “Before I played the trumpet, I used to be back here listening to these records, pulling through most of these records I’ve heard about. It’s a homecoming for me.”

Given his familiarity with the historical space, it was only fitting that he use it for a monumental collaboration of his own. Working in tandem with Billboard and 1800 Tequila’s Refined Players series, Scott enlisted a mind-blowing group of talent for his contribution to the project.

With Joe Dyson on drums, Weedie Braimah on the djembe, Joe Harley on guitar, Elena Pinderhughes on flute, Derrick Hodge on bass, and, perhaps most impressively, Vic Mensa on vocals, the music this crew came up with was sure to be mind-blowing. For his part, Mensa agreed to listen to what this ensemble created, and drop a couple searing rap verses and a chorus over the top of it. The result is the phenomenal supergroup collab, “Freedom Is A Word,” that dropped last Friday, which you can hear below.

But none of this came about without careful planning. In October, toward the end of their process, the group gathered at Preservation Hall to perform and record the song live for the first time, and I was lucky enough to be in the audience. I also got the chance to pick Vic and Christian’s brain prior to the show, to get a real sense of the thought process behind their collab. Read our conversation below, and hear the electric resulting track, “Freedom Is A Word,” above.

First off, why don’t you tell me about all the jewelry you’re wearing.

Christian: The reason that I wear all of this jewelry is for most spaces that black men have to go into, most people have concluded what they’re about before they see them, right? So for me, part of the reason that I wear this jewelry or adorn myself in this way is that when you see me, if you’re looking at things that come from cultures you don’t know much about, it creates a question. If you have questions, then it means you can’t conclude about me, right? So it’s important to me to make sure that when I’m in those moments whether I’m traveling in an airport in Dubai or when in Tokyo or any of these spaces, when people actually see me, in their appraisal of me a question pops in so they’re not just concluding as to what I’m about.

I love that. So, more to the point, how did you guys first get connected as far as this collaboration?

Christian: I was excited, so they called me, they said, ‘Okay, we’re making some music. We’re going to collaborate. We don’t know who the MC is going to be,’ but what they kept saying over and over is, ‘We think we can get Vic Mensa. I think we can get Vic Mensa.’ Right? For me, when they said it was actually final and he decided to do it, I was head over heels because I’ve been aware of his work for a while. A lot of the New Orleanian MCs are touting him and saying that he’s gonna be one of the best. A great up-and-comer. So I was really excited about having the opportunity to actually create these beats for him.

Vic: And I had heard Christian’s music online. I probably gravitated towards it because it’s like all that jazz music with jazz base, it’s also very radical and kind of political, too. We were having this conversation a little bit earlier, where we were talking about the lyrics that I wrote and some changes that needed to be made. Except, what people with an untrained ear don’t really understand is that if you were to take his music, his chords, his chord progressions and make words out of it, which is what I’m attempting to do, it would be saying these things: it would be explicitly political.

It wouldn’t be ambiguous. That’s what that music means. That’s what jazz music is saying to you. Jazz music is Miles Davis with his back turned to an all-white audience that doesn’t understand. That’s what this music means. Not in a divisive or to exclude people at all, but just that this music, both jazz music and hip-hop, and I think that the way we both individually come at it, this music is born from a place of struggle. That’s the tie-in, that’s the theme.

Christian: When I was a little boy, there was a picture on my wall, every day there was a picture of Malcolm X and a few other leaders from the ’60’s, but under Malcolm X’s picture was a quote of his that said, “Jazz music was the only place in America where the black man could be free.” Obviously, hip-hop wasn’t around in that moment, but I think that these conduits for our expression, for us to be able to clearly speak to what we’re enduring and what we’re seeing to try and navigate, that’s based in a way where there’s love there, but we also get real about what we’re really experiencing, is paramount for us to figure out and move on. I don’t think you’re going to find a better example of that in our times or in this cat here, but we’re having fun with it and that’s great.

I was going to ask you what headspace you were in when you were writing the lyrics because I know that it was very recently, but it sounds like…

Vic: Yeah, I had done something originally, then I did something different last night and today and you know, I just kind feed off the music. What the music guides me towards. When I was a kid, when I was younger, I used to write raps with no beat. I gotta go back to doing that. I almost forgot how to do that. These days, I’ll just take the direction that the music pushes me in. So when I first heard those chords that he made, and it’s kind of haunting and it’s a little bit otherworldly, kind of eerie. It immediately took me to a place thinking about what’s going on in the world.

So, the end of both my verses I’m saying the world’s gone mad. Just anybody that’s not living under a rock knows that.

That’s kind of where my headspace was, thinking about the things that are going on in my community and going on in other communities and trying to talk about something real. Not even trying, but the music just feels that way to me. Had it been bright major chords or something, really happy and bouncy, then maybe I’d been thinking about something else, but given what that sonic landscape was, that sonic landscape sounded like the streets to me. It sounded like real life. That’s the type of stuff that I was thinking about.

For you, Vic, this is also one of the first new things that you’ve released since you released your debut. Do you see them as connected at all? Or what do you think the relationship is between this new project and The Autobiography?

Vic: Well, I think that this is from the same DNA. Although, there’s not a lot of notable jazz influence in my album. I’ve always been — for the last ten years — a fan of jazz music and respected jazz music a lot. I was in a band in high school with straight jazz musicians. My best friend, his name is Nico, Nico Segal, and he’s a trumpet player, so we were in a band together. I remember he was carrying around a trumpet from day one. He was carrying around a trumpet, we smoking blunts, getting into fights, but he always got his trumpet on his back. Always had his trumpet. [To Christian] You probably understand that. I got opened up to jazz music through him. I’d be going to the Jazz Showcase in Chicago back in high school, thinking I’m fresh, taking girls over there like we ain’t old enough to drink with. We’d get us a gin and tonic to share.

The relationship between jazz and hip-hop is already pretty strong, too.

Vic: You know Q-Tip said something about hip-hop. My pops used to say it reminded him of B-Bop. I feel that the improvisation move, the freedom that he was talking about, the endless possibilities of jazz, they make sense with hip-hop to me too because it’s like jazz. I know it has some structural rules and shit that I can’t really see and that I don’t know the chord structures well enough, but you can really do whatever the fuck you want to do. That’s the same thing with hip-hop. You can’t tell me it’s not hip-hop. We could do whatever we want to do. I could just motherfuckin’ like, I could just do anything — it just doesn’t have to be an even number of bars. I could do whatever I want to do and it’s hip-hop.

I feel that jazz is really similar in that way. I think they just share a lot of the same genes and the same DNA. And trumpet specifically, is like, I learned a lot from my man Nico on the trumpet because it’s kind of like the same range as a vocalist actually, so we’d be butting heads because we’re in the same sonic space. But trumpet is like, it’s just piercing, it’s like a voice. It’s like you can speak with it the same way you can speak with your voice. But to go back to your question though, I feel that this song that we’ve done is different from my album, but it’s also familiar territory to me though.

We’re at Preservation Hall tonight, which is such a historical spot. This is only my second trip to New Orleans, so it’s my first time here, but I know it’s a hugely important historical space for music in this region. How does it feel for you as a native to be performing such a massive work at such a historical spot?

Christian: What I think is most beautiful about the moment is having the opportunity to embrace a new connectivity to a relationship with another culture of music. And having a moment to actually show the connective tissue between those spaces. Now when you were talking about how he sees jazz, obviously I don’t think that’s how I see jazz and how I see hip-hop, but I don’t look at them like they are independent cultures. I look at them as one is a continuation of another culture, which is just a different mode of operating, right? When I hear these sixteen bars, to me that feels like John Coltrane playing the blues because he’s a truth-teller.

What we do… I’m a truth teller in these moments. The blues of it, when I’m growing up in New Orleans, they would always say jazz and blues are synonyms for each other. But not blues in that it’s ‘woe is me, melancholy, the world is on my neck blues,’ but blues in that, this is the human being’s most sincere attempt to excavate what they’re going through and feeling and being able to project that in a way that’s clear and palpable to other people. I think with that through line, if you look at hip-hop, it really is that blues and jazz. The connected tissue is the same, right?

So I think that part of the problem that we’ve gotten to, I think as a generationally, is creating these chasms and these spaces for cultures of music that is essentially the same part, right? Obviously, we’re talking about Billboard magazine is sponsoring this collaboration, these faces there, genres calibrated in a way where you can separate things so you can look up records on all of these things.

At the end of the day, I think that the heart of hip-hop and the heart of B-bop, the heart of jazz, stretch music, trap music, all of these things, are essentially coming out of a culture of people that feel they need to tell the truth about what’s going on obviously. Not everybody’s a truth-teller. I think for what you’re getting tonight, I think for this time period, this generation you’d be hard-pressed to find two motherfuckers spitting as hard as we are with the truth.

Vic Mensa’s The Autobiography is out now, and he’s currently on the road opening for Jay-Z’s 4:44 tour. To learn more about Christian Scott, check out his suite of records from 2017: Ruler Rebel, Diaspora, The Emancipation Procrastination.