As soulful multi-Instrumentalist and producer from Detroit, Zo! has had the pleasure of working with rapper Phonte from Little Brother, The Foreign Exchange, and more recently with singer Sy, who is also a back-up singer for Sheila-E. You’ll know him from the breathtaking beautiful track ‘If she breaks your heart’ which features in The Foreign Exchange album ‘Leave it all behind.’ I caught with Zo! last year to see what we can expect from his latest project ‘Man Made’ due to release in spring, the most unusual instrument he has used whilst producing, and why he doesn’t want to go to his grave without passing on music. Margaret Tra writes.
Are you just currently on tour, or are you on a break?
We just came off. We just did like a weekend. Three cities, three days, came back yesterday.
How was it?
It was...those joints are tiring! You’re driving, you’re performing, same day, but it’s all, it’s all worth it man.
Sounds like one thing after the next. A lot of shows backed up?
Like 3, 4 hours of sleep each night.
What were the shows like? What was the response like?
People were digging it! We went to, let me see, the only place we played solo shows this time... we went to Memphis, we went to St Louis and we went to Indianapolis. St Louis was the only repeat. Memphis was our first one and Indianapolis was our first one. We played in all three spots with Foreign Exchange, but not as a duo.
Is there a significant difference between performing with the Foreign Exchange and with Sy?
When Sy and I perform, it’s different from Foreign Exchange; maybe because I guess the show dynamic, you know we’re more... we’re a lot loose. I guess both entities, we all have fun on stage, so you know we’ll definitely take it. We’ll take here and then take it here...depending on what the crowd is like. Of course Foreign Exchange has the bigger name so it’s going to be a bigger crowd and things like that. But I mean you know, both sides, its dope. We still hop off stage, and go interact with the fans at each show. I’m a fan too, so if I wanted to go see my favourite artist, and they came on stage and interacted, that would be kind of like the price for the admission fee so, it would be worth the ticket.
You don’t really see that that often though...
Na you really don’t! We definitely want to make sure that we let folks know that we appreciate, you know, that they are spending their money, because they don’t have to...
Do you think that you will keep doing that?
You know, folks can stay at home. We make sure we go out there, shake hands or sign things and take pictures and all that.
Well like you, aren’t you a homebody?
So you obviously didn’t plan out to have a music career, you were quite heavily in sports, what was the pivotal moment for you that made you decide that music was for you?
Not playing sports anymore (laughs). I was drafted out of high school to play baseball and ended up going to Western Kentucky University. Ended up graduating, and playing for 4 years, and then you know what I was 22, and it stopped. I didn’t get drafted again and whatever, and so I had all this time, all this idle time, cause I mean, baseball is, if you play baseball in college, it becomes your job, I had all this idle time and it’s like, what do I do now besides, you know, go to class. I gained 20 pounds of weight (laughs). You know I call it a transfer of passion, you know the way I was passionate about baseball, I flipped it into music, I had, at the time I had one keyboard, and one sequencer, so I decided to start making music and it seemed to have worked at the time. It wasn’t anywhere near what I am doing now, but I mean it was something that seemed to keep me motivated. And it seems to have built up a little since 2000/ 2001.
And what was that moment that made things build up? Who did you work with, do you think, that made you get your name out there?
Um, who did I work with? Um, I don’t think it was necessarily who I was working with, I think it was more or less, realising that it could be done! And at the time I was, passing my stuff back and forth to a member of Prophetics, he’s a DJ and producer for Prophetics which is a group based out of Atlanta. They were actually the first group to give me my first production credit.
Do you think growing up in Detroit was a big influence on becoming an artist?
I think growing up in that area, but I think most of all growing up in a musical household, more so, the influence. Like my mother and father always played music in the house. Or like whenever we were in the car there was always music around us so, I got you know, more of a soul side from my mum, and more funk from my father. I was always the kid who was mesmerized, looking at the linear notes. I would like try and take some crayons and draw on them. I still have albums to this day that have my old crayon marks on them.
So how did you become part of the Foreign Exchange family?
That was through Phonte. Um, I met Te back in ‘05. I went to a Little Brother show, and at the time I had the Re:Definition album out, which was the joint I did with the remixes, and two Little Brother remixes on there, and I had heard on Little Brother message boards that he had heard the joint. So you know, I’ll finally get to holla at him after the show, tell him respect, you know, whatever, that was my plan. So when he came up, he was walking through, he came up, we said what’s up, he was like, “Yo I know you, I know who you are,” I was like “word?”, and he was like, “I got your album on my iPod”, I was like “word!” So pretty much on the spot, we ended up exchanging phone numbers, and we kept in touch, and at the end of the year, we working on steppin’ out for the first ...’Just visiting.’ Like I had asked him, “Yo I’m working on ...just visiting”, he had already heard ‘Caught Up in the Rapture’ and a couple of other joints, and he was feeling them, so I was like, let me see if he’ll sing. I had been thinking about it, and he said “Yea send ‘em through.” And I was like sh** ok. Sent them through, he ended up knocking it out, we been working ever since. It was after I moved here we started working on ‘When Everything Is New’ for Little Brother album, and ‘If She Breaks Your Heart’ for Foreign Exchange album, and once we did that, he was like “Once we take this album on the road, I want you to be a part of it,” I was like ‘cool’ you know, I’m with it. We went out on the road in New York, 2008, been on the road ever since.
So you also teach as well?
Yeah I did, I was in the DC school system teaching Special Ed, High School kids, basically kids who had one foot in the jail, one foot in the classroom. I would teach music to them in a classroom setting. And I did that for 5 years until the school shut down. But yeah I still teach lessons to adults, kids because I think it’s important for me I guess as an artist. I don’t want to go to my grave not passing on music, I want to be able to take a couple folks under my wing and be like ‘that’s my student, that’s my student.’ You know, music is meant to be passed on, it can’t just stop with you, whether it’s your children, your students, something, you got to pass it on.
And you mentioned Motown is a big influence on your music?
Yea I think so, I definitely think so. You know, my mother is a huge Motown fan. She’s actually from this area though, she’s from Maryland. She played Motown all the time.
So you are obviously a man of many talents, but you don’t sing, well do you sing?
I do not.
No? So how do you decide on the artists that you want to feature on your albums then?
It’s basically about fit. I guess the first thing that you decide is do you want a male or a female vocalists on there, then I’ll do a joint, I’ll send it to Phonte, like me and Phonte pretty much on the phone every other day, it’s like, “Who you hear on this?” “I hear such and such” or “I don’t know who I hear on it yet.” There’s a lot of people I want to work with but so far, I haven’t worked with them on this album because I don’t hear anything that fits them, I don’t want to force them into something that I don’t think would fit, or something I don’t hear them over, it’s like throwing somebody in a fire you know what I mean. It has to really mesh well, with no clashes and I we don’t want to have a clashing album.
So do you mainly just use live instrumentation when you are producing?
Yeah, and not a lot of people think I’m the one playing the instruments. People don’t know I play stuff outside of keys, so I continue to make that known; I play more than one instrument.
What do you play, go, tell us.
Well when I’m in the studio I play keys, I play bass; I play drums, I play guitar, I’ve only played gigs on three of those four, I’ve never gigged on guitar I don’t think I’m good enough yet. I only play in studio.
Do you ever use any non-traditional instruments or it is just strictly traditional?
I have a little mini xylophone, so I’m trying to put that on something but I don’t want make it sound corny. The rain stick, it’s a stick and then you turn it over and it makes noises. I’ve used that before, I’ve used a set of keys for shakers, I think that’s about as far out as I have gone, I pretty much stay pretty normal. Pretty much keep it straight.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I’m working on a new album called ‘Man Made’ coming out in Spring.
And what can we expect from that? Can you say anything?
You can expect some good music.
(Laughs) It’s going to be good music, its going to be original music. I know a lot of people have asked me for a 90’s album to follow up from the 80’s album, like I did before. I’m not really feeling the covers right now so just leaping forward.
So more of your own stuff?
That’s what we want to push. As far as an artist that’s growing, and an artist that wants to solidify some type of legacy, I don’t want to solidify my legacy based on what someone else is doing. I want to solidify it based on my own end.
What stimulates your soul?
Good love. Good music. Good Food.
That does sound good.
If you can get all three of those, then you can call it a good day.
To listen to more of Zo!'s work jump onto his Website.