Truth Be Told: An Interview with Chip Shearin
Chip Shearin is one of the most well rounded musicians in the world. He’s a top tier bassist who has worked with artists including Donald Byrd, Marion Meadows, Aretha Franklin, Janet Jackson, Christina Aguilera, Ceelo, and many more. He produces commercial music for advertisements, television shows, and even composes film music. Millions have heard his playing in one form or another, but many will instantly recognize his playing on the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Shearin was just a teenager when he recorded the track, which he admits he has a love-hate relationship with.
After helping so many stars develop their albums and live shows, Shearin has released his debut solo album, How I Live, on Innervision Records. The 12-song release collects several of the bassist’s original tunes with some memorable takes on his favorite classic songs like “Stretchin’ Out” by Bootsy Collins, “Who Is He” by Bill Withers, and the Meters tune “Cissy Strut.”
Shearin has also been keeping busy on the bass with fellow 4-stringer Ethan Farmer. The duo created a band called The Avengers, which has played a string of shows last year with more tour dates in the works.
Shearin splits his time between Los Angeles and North Carolina, where he grew up. We reached him at his home to get his take on the music industry, his band, his new album, and the story behind “Rapper’s Delight.”
I know you’re back and forth between the East Coast and West Coast. Does that determine your work schedule?
I have a full blown studio in my house. I don’t think you have to necessarily be in LA anymore like you used to be where you have to be seen ‘X’ number of days to have a presence [laughs]. I don’t think anybody cares. Between that and social media, it’s seamless.
Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing?
I think it’s a good thing. I always thought that sooner or later we would have to explore a little larger boundaries. There are a lot of extremely talented people in the world who probably haven’t had opportunities because they weren’t “around the industry.” Now the industry for the most part, being the way that media is disseminated, is out of your living room wherever your living living room is. Of course, finding your markets and fanbase or driving or building one can happen from anywhere. I don’t think it’s as important as it used to be. Obviously, birds of a feather flock together and some of those rules will always hold.
One thing for sure is that the younger generation all want to run to LA, mostly because they’ve never seen it. The seasoned guys are like, “You know what? Been there, done that. I can be back when I need to.” So yeah, I think it’s a good thing [laughs].
So you do a lot of your recording from your own studio?
Oh, I do tons. I’m sitting here working on a Marion Meadows project. We just finished it and the singles just came out. I’m working on a movie score right now for a Woody Harrelson film, which is unnamed. It’s a great script and they start going through ideas of basic scenes. Then they start shooting and they want some form of emotion to follow the scene. Some of the music will adhere to the scene and some of it won’t. I got into this little spat with Woody last year where he told me that the music I did was too purple. I was like, “What the hell is purple?” So at times I think I have to be part-time bartender… you just give them what they want. Does too purple mean too much Prince? Too much Oprah? Too grape?
How much do you play out compared to studio work?
Seasonally, that always describes me as a musician, and it has for a number of years. Obviously when you start losing your outside venues and you’re forced inside, then what you get is what you get. That means either you create work or the lack of work creates you. This time of year I’m probably doing sixty percent in the studio. I do a ton of jingles for Ford, American Express, Waterpik, and even a Pringles commercial. So I’ll do a lot of jingles and a lot of production for artists that are on their way up, which I enjoy because there’s some great, great talent out there that no one has ever heard. They need to get there. Then of course I’ve got the Woody Harrelson film and I did music for some of the past Iron Man movies. There’s some scenes that I submitted for another superhero movie that’s coming out. Some of these I don’t even know what they are. People just say, “Hey, we need fight music. Think a rocket and an atomic bomb. What rush can we get from that?” So that industry has changed a lot.
There again, it takes up a lot of time and a lot of work when it’s snowing and icing outside. When the weather breaks come April and May, Ethan Farmer and I will start back with The Avengers again and start that tour. We’ll do a split with probably six or seven straight days on the East Coast and then put a string of dates for the West Coast. Then he hops back on stage with Lionel Ritchie and I guess sings “Sail On” and whatever else Lionel is gonna sing. I pick on Ethan and say, “Yeah, you’ll go back to being rich again.” [laughs]
He’s an LA guy, too, right?
He’s a Chicago born-and-raised kid out of the Chicago churches. He moved to LA about twenty years ago and that’s pretty much his home base now. Between Lionel Ritchie and Christina Aguilera and so many of the pop acts that he’s done through the years.
We’re having fun doing this Avengers thing with two bass players and a band with a full horn section. It’s extremely punchy. To be honest, we’re laughing at it because it’s something we’ve been wanting to do for years and finally we said screw it and did it. Well it kind of took off and it’s been a lot of fun. We’re happy to have the opportunity to do it.
So how did you two hook up?
I met Ethan about fifteen years ago after being in LA for a short time. Ethan, like a lot of the young guys, would bar hop. It’s how you get the gigs in LA. You run around to the clubs, you sit in, then the music directors and drummers get to know you, as well as guitar players and even other bass players. I tell bass players all the time that you’d better get to know the bass players because you want to be friends with them. If they can’t make the gig they need good subs, and everybody wants to use their friends. They don’t want to use some idiot they don’t know or don’t trust to take the gig. Be likeable: get to know the bass players. Stop acting like you can’t get to know the bass players. You’d better love a bass player! [laughs]
So that’s how we met. I don’t know what it is about bass players, but we have so much in common. Not only do we love the same instrument, but we love the same stupid foods and we hate the same teams. It’s funny. We’re a real fraternity.
What kind of challenges do you face in a band that features two bassists? Do you have to stay out of each others way?
I can’t say it’s as much as a challenge for us as much as it could be for others. The first thing you’ve gotta do is you gotta leave your ego at the door. You have to love the other guys on the bandstand and say, “Let’s create something together.” Once you have that, it becomes very easy.
Of course with two of us playing the bottom end notes, you could end up with a lot of rumble and not a lot of tonal focus. It can be a mess. But what happens is that on some songs I’ll play a piccolo bass – strung from high F down to an A – and Ethan will just play a regular four-string, which he loves to do. At that point there’s not as much of an issue. He’ll play bottom and I’ll play mid and top. When we’re playing the same instrument tuning-wise, then it’s just a matter of loving what the other guy does and supporting him and staying out of the way. If he plays with a thumb, you don’t play with a thumb. That’s what the song calls for. But play the song and help the other person stand out versus playing over them, which drives both us nuts seeing bass players not be able to do.
It’s the same respect that musicians should give to each other of different instruments. Like a keyboard player; get off the keyboard bass if it’s a different line from what the bass player is doing. Everybody just stay in their lane.
I think the biggest one for us that really makes the show is that we didn’t try to do each other. In other words, [we play our own styles] so that there are two clear and distinct voices. I think that worked well with Victor Wooten and Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke when they did their thing. They stayed in their lanes. Otherwise it won’t work. It just becomes a bunch of noise [laughs].
Are you guys going to record as The Avengers?
Yeah, we’re working on a deal with Ropeadope Records, which is run by Louis Marks and has Snarky Puppy on the label. My record that I have out is on Innervision, and it’s just for this one record. For the sake of what we want to do with the Avengers, we want to do it on the Ropeadope label. To be honest, they’re just doing an incredible job of letting people be themselves. Snarky Puppy has been for years, and part of why we’ve fallen in love with them is because they’re like, “Hey, it may be weird and it hasn’t been done before but it’s us.” What a great way to live, huh?
We’re trying to get into the studio, but it will probably be the early Fall by the time we get in with that.
I wanted to talk about your album, How I Live. You’ve talked about it a little before, but you’ve had such an incredible career – why did you decide to do this album now?
You know, it’s interesting. That album has been an on-again-off-again project for a decade. You know it’s like a lot of musicians. When you start the project you’re passionate about it, but there’s that mixture between art and commerce. Sometimes commerce wins out and the art gets put on the back burner [laughs]. This was one of those where finally art and commerce got together and I was able to get this thing completed.
After being on the road with artists for so many years – I actually set this up on the first track – so many artists would keep saying, “You took a great solo at my show. Why is that you aren’t doing anything for yourself?” Then you know, bass players are very supportive by nature. We’re the care-giver guys at times. We’re the ones that stop when we see someone with a flat on the side of the road. For some reason, that’s part of our personality.
I had to force myself last year to finally focus and finish it. But that’s what it takes sometimes.
There is a line in the intro track that I thought was interesting where you say it’s not “wine and cheese and palm trees jazz.” Can you explain that?
Oh yeah, I can. It’s interesting. Back in 1995 when the “smooth jazz” term came about, there was a gentlemen by the name of Alan Kepler who said, “You know what? I’m going to come up with a way of being a radio consultant to stations that are looking to change formats, and I’m going to come up with this new music called Smooth Jazz.” The music had already existed. We had the music by Bob James and Herbie Hancock and George Duke and Kirk Whalum and so many others, but he put a title to it and sold it to radio stations. It became a format that he could sell in order to sell his consultation services to these radio stations to bring them listeners to, among other things, sell ads.
What happened at that point is that the music became very homogenous. It was all shuffle beats and no emotion at all. It was like, “If I hear another shuffle beat, I’m going to flush my head down the toilet!” The bad thing about it is that you had some incredible musicians who just quit on it and started playing shuffle beats. The list was endless, and these guys completely went to sleep on this. They said, “Well, if I’ve gotta get radio play, I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta do.” And they sold their souls to the Alan Kepler devil. Sorry, but it’s true. Even though me and Alan are friends now, it is what it is. Everybody wanted the airplay so bad, they quit what they wanted to do and did just that. Except for George Duke and Herbie Hancock and those guys. They stayed themselves.
But what would happen is you’d come play in California. You’d come do a concert in Sacramento or Newport Beach, and people would sit in the audience and they wouldn’t clap, they wouldn’t even hold eye contact with the stage. It was just emotionless because after eight groups of playing shuffle beats, you’re numb. Have your little wine and cheese and the palm tree blows, then before you know it it’s like, “Oh by the way, there was music on in the background. I don’t know if you noticed.” That was pretty much the California jazz scene. That since has changed, but it only changed because the East Coast guys decided to come over and add their flair to it. We had a huge movement of musicians to move from Chicago, Houston, Dallas, and more into LA, and music became more vibrant. It was more colorful. There were more people taking chances. You go to these smooth jazz concerts now and it’s not smooth jazz at all. It’s Erykah B adu and Larry Graham. Basically you’re getting the music people want to hear and listen to and pay attention to, versus sitting with a silver plate, wine, cheese, palm trees and paying no attention.
You’ve got a few cover songs on the album. Does that help to sum up the album title, in that it’s a snapshot of you and your influences?
It really is at that particular point, including for example the Bootsy Collins tune [“Stretchin’ Way Out”]. I remember years ago my first… I guess we won’t call it a concert. We’ll call it a talent show, because that’s what it was [laughs]. I think I was in junior high school and I decided to try out the bass and dress up like this guy named Bootsy Collins. Some of these things that you experience early, they just never leave you. Then, seeing Louis Johnson in concert for the first time and Jerry “Wyzard” Seay, who was the bassist for a band called Mother’s Finest years ago. And of course Stanley Clarke and Al Johnson. That stuff just stays with you. It never goes away.
Since the record took, I thought that this basically is how I live. I like this and feel this type this music, or I used to love this song as a kid, sometimes I like horns in music, or sometimes I like to be a little different in music. The last song, “My Joy,” is featuring John P. Kee, a gospel singer who is one of the big gospel stars. We grew up together, and as a matter of fact he’s the guy who first put a bass in my hands. His brother Alfonso Kee was the bass player for the Staples Sisters. I would watch his brother play bass and think, “That’s far cooler than guitar.” So I had to put John on it because he was such a big part of my musical upbringing back in the mid-70s.
What was the music scene like when you were growing up?
Being that I grew up in Durham, North Carolina, the place is pretty much based around Duke University. I ended up going there for school as a music major and econ minor. Before that there was a lot of gospel around because it is the bible belt, but around that it was a heck of a lot of jazz. Donald Byrd, the famous jazz trumpet player, was one of my first instructors when I was 16 years old learning improv while I was still in high school. I would follow him around and drive his van around and pick him up from the airport and those kind of things. He lived three housed down from my parents. I got to know him before I even thought about college. It was just funny that I knew him before I even started playing bass.
Growing up I had a lot of really talented people around me. Honestly, I don’t think I could have missed, to be quite honest because there were so many people around. If I wanted to be a doctor I probably would have failed miserably because I didn’t have a lot of doctors around me. I had a ton of musician friends and teachers around. My dad was an insurance agent/attorney so I had him around to save time. There was just a lot going on.
I know you’ve told this story before, but “Rapper’s Delight” started a huge movement. Could you tell us how that went down?
I don’t mind at all, but I have to tell you I couldn’t stand that song for a number of years after I did it because to be honest I didn’t think it would hold any social ramifications or hold any weight whatsoever. In my opinion it was just this dumb thing I did as a kid.
After high school, I had decided I didn’t want to go to college because a friend of mine talked me into coming to New Jersey and seeing what it was like. Of course, I knew this place called New York had to be somewhere close to this place called New Jersey on a map. Being that I was just a little country boy, I figured I would bump into one or the other if I drove up there [laughs].
After I got there he says, “Look, there’s this lady who owns a recording studio with her husband. They do a lot of different music. As a matter of fact, they even print albums.” I had never seen the machine make wax, so I think I was more interested in seeing that made than the studio. It was like, man that’s freaky.
So we went by the studio and sure enough, Sylvia Robinson was there. And she would give you about sixty or seventy bucks to hang around the studio and it would be something she would play. The funny thing about it is that Doug Wimbish was one of the musicians in the Sugar Hill thing, but he had left. He got pissed at Sylvia and Joe Robinson and left to start a band in Hartford called Wood, Brass and Steel. He said, “Chip, what an amazing time. I went on strike and then here you came.” [laughs] So they didn’t have any musicians at all, so I would just sit around. I would play on some things that were used. Some of those things didn’t really make a splash, but this particular day was that they said, “We need you to play this particular song. If you could, I need you to play it for fifteen minutes.” There were some things about that song that in interviews I forget, but I want to tell you that she didn’t have a recording of the song. She said, & #8220;Have you ever heard ‘Good Times’ by Chic?” I said yeah, because I had always been a fan of Bernard Edwards. If you’re a bass player, then you know hip bass lines.
I knew of the bass line but not all of it. Then Sylvia said, “Can you change it a little bit?” I’m like, “I’m not sure exactly what you want me to do.” Because you have to remember, this had never been done before. The whole idea of recording someone else’s music live had never really been done. You played it live at a club, but you didn’t record it. Her reason for doing that years ago was that she was hoping and thinking that she could avoid some legal ramifications if the bass line was a tiny bit off. There was no real study of intellectual property. We really hadn’t had a law suit of any magnitude whatsoever over it, and the parody law hadn’t been pushed. We didn’t have anything. So if you ever listen to the original bass line, [he anticipates the second half of the phrase], and what I did was play it on the downbeat. It was on the downbeat rather than on the upbeat or the last sixteenth. That was supposed to be the difference, as if when Nile Rodgers heard it he would say, “Nope, never heard it before.” [laughs] I talked to Nile about that before. I said, “Did it trick you?” and he just laughed so hard. I told him that’s what Sylvia had me do and he said it was the craziest thing. But at that particular point, I still had no idea that the reason for the change was some kind of way controlling the intellectual property in their favor. Never crossed my mind at 17 years old [laughs].
I remember playing this thing with the drummer and we were sweating bullets, because fifteen minutes is a long ass time. It really is. There was a clock that used to sit in the studio over the control window. The metronome back then was a blinking light. There was no click so you had to watch the light. It got to a point where the drummer and I were watching the light. We only did one take, but for some reason we both understood that we both couldn’t watch the light because we’d have two interpretations of the light. I turned my head away and watched him instead. So we ended up finishing and I remember rolling up my cable and threw my bass in my be hardshell case. I asked Mrs. Robinson, “What are you going to do with this?” She said, “I have these kids that me and my son found that are just going to talk real fast over the music.” I looked at her and said, “Good luck with that.” [laughs] She paid us seventy dollars for the day and gave me a ride home in her Rolls Royce. That was was a real treat for a little colored kid from North Carolina. I was thinking that I made out better than she did!
My parents forced me to come back to school. I enrolled at Duke. I remember walking through the quad during freshman year in September and someone was playing this thing out of one of the dorm rooms. I’m just shocked because it was the first time I had heard it down. I never heard the record until I was sitting on campus, to hear the voices in and the string samples that they stole from the top of the record. You know, there were no sample machines so they had to play a tape at the same time and record it with a mic to get it on there. It was just razor blades putting that part onto two-inch tape to get it to come up. Old school as it could be. I was so shocked. I had to actually see if it was me or not. But that’s how it happened.
It’s such a pivotal song. Has it been a bit of a burden at the same time?
Just imagine that everywhere you go, you’re going to hear that song. There isn’t a wedding band that doesn’t play it. So if you’re going to visit your aunt in Nebraska or wherever and you step into a wedding, there it is. Radio Shack and JC Penny used it in commercials. I had a list one time of all the commercial uses of the tune and it was probably close to 74 uses in commercials, motion pictures, television shows. You could never get away from it. Of course it picked up again about ten years ago when rap became even more of a constant. It became really accepted in middle class America as a way of pushing a device or product. Now it’s a tie-back to something that some people view as classic, like it’s an oldie. My god, we’ve gotten to the point where rap is deemed old. That song I guess, if you’re going to play an old song you might as well play one that’s as classic as possible, which is why it got so m any plays.
It became a burden a lot. I hid from it for years. I think Rolling Stone made a point of putting it in a list of top 100 greatest songs of all time. Then I started getting mad at listings or letters and emails from various magazines about it, because it gave it another push.
Terry Stewart from the Rock Hall sent me a message saying he’d like me to come up to show me around. So I did and he showed me around and talked about it. I had no idea what he had in mind at that particular point, but we just did a lot of discussing the history of music. The Rock Hall actually wanted to tie rap and rock together as a historic music versus saying no other music exists and it should be a museum piece for rock. It just turned into something completely different.
The social ramification became crazy because all of the sudden I’m doing speeches at Yale and Duke’s campus because there was a social movement about this song that started a couple of billion dollar industry, or was at least the springboard for it. Then I got a letter from John Deacon from Queen through the Rock Hall that tells me that he heard my version before he heard Bernard Edwards’s version for the sake of giving him a reason for writing “Another One Bites the Dust.” I refuse to accept that burden [laughs]. It came out shortly after Chic’s song and it did have higher airplay at that time because it was unique. But yeah, that’s a lot of burden.
What else is coming for you?
I’ve got a website that’s about to be released called MakeMusicPay.com. We beta tested it for a little bit in different markets, but basically what it does is it teaches musicians how to make a living. For the most part, a working musician like myself, what I’ve had to do is just that. [I’ve had to be] broad enough to do commercial music and television and motion pictures and produces and all of these things. All of it is a body of work; it’s not just playing a bass. I think bass players are better at these things because we have great ears and we’re supportive. It makes us a little bit more cerebral. I could be biased [laughs]. But I think bass players make great business people and really, really incredible musicians and producers. The site will also offer health insurance in group form. It shocked us at how quick the popularity of that site grew.
It would be like a gym membership. You pay a few dollars a month, then you have access to Ethan and me, Michael Bearden who is Lady Gaga’s music director, and so many others to teach you how to find work. That’s what’s on the plate and not just coming up. We’re hoping to have that rolled out by the second week of August, around when schools get back in.
I also have some new stuff coming through Roger Sadowsky. There’s a Chip Shearin model bass that we’re working on right now. We’ve got some initial drawings going on and it’s going to be something really special. It’s a couple designs of mine and some electronics ideas that we’ve put together that we think people will be freaked about.