Sonny Boy: To The Core

Those who love music and truly appreciate it can trace their musical roots back to their childhood. Imagine the early memories of rummaging through your parent’s records, only to be amazed by the intoxicating sounds that came blasting out of the speakers. Rick James, The P-Funk, Bob Marley, Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin… the youthful naivety […]

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Those who love music and truly appreciate it can trace their musical roots back to their childhood. Imagine the early memories of rummaging through your parent’s records, only to be amazed by the intoxicating sounds that came blasting out of the speakers. Rick James, The P-Funk, Bob Marley, Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin… the youthful naivety of “discovering” classic sounds is unforgettable. For Shell Riser, better known as Sonny Boy – a childhood nickname given to him by his grandmother – these are fond memories.

Sonny Boy grew up performing with his church band, and after he saw a performance by the legendary group Zapp, he was inspired to sharpened his skills on various instruments. His diligent practice came into play as the ‘one man band’ produced wrote and played all of the instruments on his new album Psycho-Delic-Ghetto-Vibe. We recently reminisced with Sonny Boy about his days of digging in the crates and creating his own brand of art. Alternatives: You played all of the instruments on your album. How easy is it to transition between them?

Sonny Boy: It depends on what mood I’m in. I may pick up an instrument one day, say, sit and write from the piano. It’s a mood thing.

AHHA: What was your affiliation with Prince’s Paisley Park record label? Did you play with the man in purple himself?

Sonny Boy: No, I didn’t necessarily play with Prince, as much as I played with people that worked for him. I played with a group that was on the Paisley Park record label. I came pretty close, but nothing substantial.

AHHA: When you were first coming into your musical career, was there a lot of music that blew you away, making you want to write and compose?

Sonny Boy: I started listening to my dad’s records. I got my ass whooped a couple of times for scratching them. I would get those records, and I thought it was amazing. Then for me, I was listening to all kinds of music: the P-Funk, Marley, I just got really into the music. I don’t know what it was. I had an organ in my room. I would always try to play the song that I was listening to. I had music posters all over my walls. When my father used to lay the albums out, after he was done with them, I would tape the covers to my walls. Man, I had Rick James, Blow Fly, and all kinds of that stuff on my wall.

AHHA: Sounds like you grew up a Soul baby, rummaging through you father’s records. Is that where you first learned to play music?

Sonny Boy: I studied from a jazz pianist. A lot of what I learned came from church. When I really needed to start getting it together, I played with this jazz guy for a few years. Then I started playing around the circuit. That’s how I wound up going to Minneapolis. It was a process.

AHHA: If an album had that kind of an impact on you, I can only imagine the type of effect that a live performance must have had. I read a little something about you seeing the legendary funk group, Zapp.

Sonny Boy: It was my first time seeing a concert as a kid. To see a concert with that many people… Again, I was playing in church, but I wasn’t playing my instrument the way they were. I was like, “Wow!” I saw Roger [Roger Troutman], who really didn’t get recognized as much as he played an instrument. He was a pretty well rounded musician. I was blown away to see him live in concert. The dude, he was just an excellent musician, so it just blew me away. At the time I was just a piano player, and I just wanted to be good at doing that. At the same time, I had love for all instruments.

AHHA: Did you start trying to change your style by breaking up notes or dabbling with improvisation?

Sonny Boy: I started really trying to mimic anything that I heard. I think that was the breaking point for me. I started playing in bands outside of the church. I would always watch other musicians play and go from there. I think that it was just a matter of being around it.

AHHA: Speaking of musical childhood memories, the opening track, “It Don’t Matter,” has a Fish Bone meets The Time type of funkiness to it.

Sonny Boy: [Laughs] It’s good that you get that vibe out of it.

AHHA: One day you sit down at the bass and the next another instrument. What inspires you to make a track?

Sonny Boy: I sit there and vibe. It’s really a number of things. With that track, I actually started with the drums first. They were working for me.

AHHA: Are there any misconceptions that people have about seeing you live versus hearing the album?

Sonny Boy: I don’t do songs to impress people by playing all of the instruments. You can play all of the instruments and still have a bad song. Upon completing a song, I see if I gave it all that it needed. I like working with other musicians just as well. People get the misconception that it’s a Prince thing; that it’s an ego thing about playing all of the instruments.

AHHA: With the ability to play an array of instruments under your belt, what’s one instrument that you have yet to learn, or are in the process of learning?

Sonny Boy: Alto Sax. I love horns.

AHHA: Would you say that it comes from a Miles Davis influence?

Sonny Boy: I actually met Miles once. I love Miles. I would say that he’s a big influence on me musically. On this record, I took a Miles-type approach, to just even try new things and see if I could make it work. That to me, is the type of songwriter and musician that I like to consider myself. I think that Miles was at a level… The guy did a Hip-Hop album, come on.

AHHA: You produced, wrote, and played all of the instruments on the album, which constitutes you doing most of the work. As an artist, do you find it hard to consider an album done?

Sonny Boy: I honestly had a hard time with that on this album, and still kind of do. I think that every real artist does. You’re putting works that you love out to the world. It’s very difficult to know that people are going to be sitting and listening in detail. I think that every artist has to stop at one point and be like, “Ok, you know what? This is what I have to offer.” When the writing was complete, it would take months just to let anybody hear it. It’s difficult to let stuff go sometimes.

AHHA: There’s a track on the album titled, “Josephine Brown.” What was the real Josephine Brown like?”

Sonny Boy: The song came from a girl that I knew on my block, [while growing up]. She was interesting to me because in this whole montage of Hip-Hop admiring, she was somebody who could actually think for her self, and be herself. Going to school, kids deal with the whole peer pressure thing. What was interesting was that she was on her own vibe – she was a good-looking girl. That’s where the song came from.

AHHA: On the album, it seems like you really paid attention to detail, but how do you follow up? Do you think of it as, “That album is over, time for a clean slate,” or

“Wow, that album was good. How do I follow up?”

Sonny Boy: For me, it’s a clean slate. People thought that the album was great. For me, it’s just go and get into where I am in my life. Examine the things around me, so I can write and get something that’s quality. That’s the first thing. That’s the starting point for myself. I don’t think a lot about trying to make something better. I don’t think, ‘this album versus that album.’ You shouldn’t get caught up in something like that, because it’s art. In art, you don’t have to or shouldn’t worry about that.