Since its inception in 2000, Marshall Knights has served as the visionary and music director of the acclaimed Chicago based nine-piece ensemble, Zzaje’ (zah-JAY’).
In addition to their own projects, throughout the years, Zzaje’s ability to showcase a cross section of soul, funk, jazz, hip-hop, rock and more has afforded the band the opportunity to play with some of the premier names in music, such as Roy Ayers, Erykah Badu, OutKast, Brian McKnight, Nancy Wilson, Tye Tribbett, and Wu-Tang Clan.
This month, Knights steps forward to release his debut solo project titled, The Marshall Knights Experience. We recently caught up with him to discuss the new project and more.
Who was your musical idol and why?
I wouldn’t say I have a musical idol, but my music is influenced by many of the greats — Miles Davis, Curtis Mayfield, Earth, Wind & Fire, Quincy Jones, and Michael Jackson are some of my biggest musical inspirations
Tell us about the origins of Zzaje?
Wow, where do I start … Zzaje is a collaborative of musicians. Many of us started playing together at Thornridge High School under the leadership of David Eanes, and that was really the foundation of my musical craft. Over the years, as musicians we’ve had the pleasure to play every genre of music behind some really great artists in some really great places.
Over the years you’ve played with a myriad of acts from Nancy Wilson to Wu-Tang Clan. Which artist did you learn the most from?
El Debarge. He taught me how to just let the music become what it wants to become. Sometimes as musicians it’s a hard task to put things in the right place. El made me realize the music is the blueprint for itself, and if you pay attention, if you really pay attention, you can feel where the music wants to go.
Name an artist you’ve yet to work with but you’d love to.
I’d like to see what me and Robert Glasper would cook up in the studio. I always respected his talent and his grind.
What can fans expect from The Marshall Knights Experience?
They can expect to hear some music that they can relate to. A lot of the music out now is focused on materialistic gains. I think if you focus on your purpose, then the money will come. People want something different, and I think the environment is ready for something new. And they can expect to explore different genres of music in one cohesive collection. This album is a physical manifestation of my musical talents as a musician, writer, singer, rapper, producer, and most of all, artist.
Any added pressure doing a solo project in comparison to sharing responsibility of a group project with Zzaje?
The truth is that this a Zzaje’ project. I never looked at it like it was weight on my shoulders. I always looked it as an elevation of the movement that Zzaje’ stands for. It just so happens that I’m the one that’s in front this time.
In addition to all your musical endeavors, you have a youth development program called Mic Check. What can you tell us about the program?
Mic Check is an after-school program I developed a few years ago that teaches youth music production, audio engineering, and the music business to promote positive self-expression, self-confidence, leadership and teamwork. Young people get to create music and interact with professionals and artists in the field to complete their own projects. It’s basically an outlet for young people. So many of them struggle with expressing themselves in ways that truly allow them to deal with their frustration without being destructive to themselves or their communities. I’ve taken some time away to redevelop it, and I plan to relaunch it soon.
Tell us something fans would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m really a home body. My career dictates that I am out and about all the time, but my most favorite and peaceful place to be is at home.
How do you use social media to your advantage?
To be quite honest, I’m trying to get the hang of this social media thing. I’m an introvert by nature, so I have to make an effort at it. But, I really am just trying to use all avenues to share the message of the music, which is about connecting people and talking about what’s going on in our minds and communities.
What’s next for Marshall Knights?
Touring and getting the album to more people, and wearing my producer hat and working with more artists. Zzaje is also working on another album. I just want to create. Keep creating good music and sharing it with the world.
Knights is hosting an album release party that is free to the public on Saturday, Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Shrine in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood.
The Marshall Knights Experience is set to be released on Tuesday, Jan. 20.