LENNY KRAVITZ: Ice Ice Lenny
US rock/funk superstar Lenny Kravitz speaks to Pete Lewis while celebrating the 20th Anniversary, and timely re-release, of his iconic debut LP ‘Let Love Rule’ via a 53-date European tour.
“Yes, for me personally the ‘Let Love Rule’ album represents where it all BEGAN”, begins an affable-and-beshaded Lenny, strolling through a Knightsbridge park in the London summer sunshine: “Like, before that album I didn’t even know what I was gonna DO - and it just came out of NOWHERE! You know, I didn’t even have a RECORD-DEAL at that stage - but yet there was my first ALBUM! So for me it still reflects the very beginning of everything. Plus I think it’s a really strong album musically. Because, while you don’t necessarily hear it on the record, everything I’d been listening to up to that point did inspire me - from Miles Davis to The Jackson 5 to opera! And, while me primarily playing all the instruments on there and putting it together the way I did was a lotta work, at the same time it did set me up for how I was gonna CONTINUE working ever since!”
Indeed, with its musical combination of rock and funk blended with a psychedelic Sixties vibe, the current 2CD ‘20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition’ of the aforementioned ‘Let Love Rule’ (which features the remastered original 1989 album; plus extensive rarities, including previously-unreleased tracks and live recordings) marks a fitting tribute to Lenny’s genre-transcending 20-year career. Which has unquestionably seen him emerge as one of contemporary music’s most acclaimed singer-songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalists, winning a record-breaking four consecutive Grammy Awards and selling an estimated 38 million albums worldwide. Meanwhile, the extent of his musical eclecticism has become evident over the years in the diversity of his artist collaborations. Which range from Madonna (Kravitz produced her steamily-controversial 1991 chart-topper ‘Justify My Love’), Aerosmith and Jay-Z; to Mick Jagger, P.Diddy and Alicia Keys!
Much of which can interestingly be traced back to the cultural diversity Kravitz experienced during his early childhood in New York. Where, in May 1964, he was born to a Bahamas-rooted mother (successful TV actress Roxie Roker) and a Ukranian-Jewish-rooted father. Spending weekdays with his parents on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and weekends with his grandmother in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood of Brooklyn, the young Lenny immersed the many different styles of music enjoyed by his family (R&B, jazz, classical, opera, gospel, blues), before in turn becoming exposed to the classic soul music-of-the-day like Motown, Stax, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Al Green.
However, it was after the Kravitz family relocated to Los Angeles in 1974 that Lenny’s musical tastes expanded even further. With him joining the prestigious California Boys Choir for three years - where he performed a classical repertoire - it was also in LA that he first became introduced to rock music - listening to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Aerosmith and Jimi Hendrix. Teaching himself to play piano and bass, and determined - to the disapproval of his parents - to embark upon a music career, at 15 Kravitz left home and - inspired by British glam-rock icon David Bowie - ended up adopting the new persona of ‘Romeo Blue’! Under which alias - complete with straightened hair and blue contact lenses! - he began performing music heavily influenced by the then-fashionable synthesized pop-funk of Prince. Nevertheless, despite his first demo attracting some interest from several record-labels, a baffled Lenny at the time found himself constantly being criticised by industry execs for his music being neither “black enough” nor “white enough”!
Which in turn became the musical climate in which Kravitz recorded his aforementioned incendiary first LP ‘Let Love Rule’. When, after meeting recording engineer/keyboardist Henry Hirsch in 1985 (and realising they both shared an interest in using real instruments and vintage recording equipment) he began working on said debut with Hirsch over the next year-and-a-half, while additionally bringing on board saxophonist Karl Denson. Following which, with the album now completed, in 1989 an optimistic Lenny met up with Virgin Records. Who, genuinely excited about his musical direction, persuaded him to drop the name ‘Romeo Blue’ and sign with them.
“Oh, all that stuff I went through with so many labels back then about ‘not black enough’ or ‘not white enough’ - I mean, those words didn’t mean ANYTHING to me! Which is why I refused change my music to fit in”, relates a defiant Lenny: “But you do have to remember that back then hip hop was growing strong, while at the same time you still had the remainder of the hair-bands hanging around! So, to a lot of those labels, I fell between the cracks and nobody really knew what to DO with me - except Virgin, who wisely decided to send me over HERE! You know, I had to come to London and to Europe - where people were less concerned with boxes - so I could get my thing off the ground! Whereas I think today it’s a whole new world, where everything in music now has just meshed together. You know, I don’t think people are that concerned any more about ‘Well, if you’re black you have to do THIS!’ or whatever... I think that time in the late Eighties did pretty much signify the tail-end of all that.”
With Lenny’s next studio album rumoured to be called ‘Funk’ (with some tracks reportedly being recorded in legendary R&B producer Allen Toussaint’s studio in New Orleans), he remains openly inspired by his collaborations over the years with his early soul idols like Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder - and, perhaps most significantly, the recently-departed Michael Jackson. With whom he worked back in 2001.
“Yeah, I got to work with Michael on a track that hasn’t been released - and it was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in the studio”, recalls Lenny fondly: “He gave me a lot of room, let me do my thing... Plus we laughed the whole time! So it was definitely a fun coupla days, and to me there will never be another talent like Michael Jackson. I mean, he was actually the first live performer I ever SAW! When I was eight I went to a Jackson 5 concert at Madison Square Gardens, and they immediately became my favourite group! So if it wasn’t for Michael I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing NOW! Because the truth of the matter is that he was a boy that God blessed with the most angelic voice. You know, at the age of just 10 he was already on a par with James Brown and Aretha Franklin. But the thing that he had that they could not match was the fact that he was a child who, at the same time, sang as an adult. I mean, to me he was music. Period.”
Lenny’s Let Love Rule 20(09) Tour is currently continuing across Europe, ending July 19 in Stuttgart, Germany
The album ‘Let Love Rule: 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition’ is out now through Virgin/EMI
Words PETE LEWIS