Lil John Roberts: Remembering George Duke, Co-Parenting With Jill Scott & Making Music On His Own Terms

He’s one of the industry’s most sought-after drummers, having worked with the likes of Janet Jackson, Elton John, Mary J. Blige and Snoop Dogg to name a few.  Now, after 20-years of supporting the who’s who of music’s finest, Lil John Roberts is ready step out on his own.

This Philadelphia-bred preacher’s kid has released his debut album, “The Heartbeat” (Starburst Music), which is in stores now.  The CD is a soulful, jazz-infused collection of songs featuring some of his friends and favorite people, like Eric Roberson, Anthony David, Robert Glasper, Stokley Williams of Mint Condition, Musiq Soulchild and others.

The 42-year-old percussionist was recently in Washington, DC to perform a series of shows at the famed Blues Alley.  AlwaysAList.com spoke with him about his solo debut, the death of his mentor the late George Duke and co-parenting with his youngest son’s mom, R&B star Jill Scott.

After 20 years of supporting other artists, how does it feel to be branching out and finally doing your own thing?

It’s a huge accomplishment to finally be doing my own venture now! I’ve played on so many people’s records and toured with them as well, and it’s just good to finally invest in my own project. It was way overdue! But timing is everything and it was my time, hence the song ‘It’s Your Time’ on my album!

What was the goal in making “The Heartbeat” and what do you want the listeners’ takeaway to be?

My goal in making this record was coming from a place of positivity and ‘light.’  I wanted to have great songs with good messages and feel-good music.  My approach was very organic from the first session, to the last.  I didn’t know how or what I was going to do, I just had a template in my mind and just started it piece by piece and it just came together like a jigsaw puzzle. It was very destiny driven.

Lil John Roberts & George Duke

You consider George Duke a mentor and have a tribute to him on your CD, which is the last recording he played on. Briefly share the impact he’s had on you and how it feels to have him on your first CD.

George Duke took me under his wing when I was a young 24-year-old young man in 1995.  I met him through the late great George Howard, who’s also from my hometown of Philadelphia. He told me while we were working together, ‘I wanna introduce you to Big Poppa,’ and the rest was history!  Since meeting him I was introduce to a whole community of great musicians and artists, one being the great Rachelle Ferrell who is also from Philly.  I began to play and record with her through George and worked with so many others that were connected to him as well like Jonathan Butler, Jeffrey Osborne, Marcus Miller, Patti Austin, Greg Phillinganes, Everette Harp, James Ingram, Quincy Jones, Siedah Garrett, Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, Najee, and so many others. Meeting George changed my life in so many ways musically and spiritually. I met the cream of the crop through him. He was going to help produce my record but could only play on one song, not knowing that he was ill and after he sent me his performance on ‘In A Duke Kinda Way’ he passed a few months later. He knew that it was going to be his last works before transitioning. We even did Jeffrey Osborne’s latest record around that same time, which Jeffrey calls one of his best albums ever. Wow!

Lil John Roberts

You’ve worked with the A-List of the music business. Name a few of your favorite artists that you’ve toured with, played for or recorded with?

As I already mentioned some of the people I recorded and toured with just through George Duke alone, I’ve also worked with many, many others like Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince, Sheila E., George Benson, Boney James, Kirk Whalum, Lalah Hathaway, Al Jarreau, Stevie Wonder, Bobby Lyle, Ramsey Lewis, Nancy Wilson, Patti LaBelle, Luther Vandross, Anthony Hamilton, En Vogue, Blondie, Elton John, Al Green, Norah Jones, Liz Wright, Zakir Hussain, Wynton Marsalis, Isaac Hayes, and Norman Brown. I could go on and on and on!  I’ve been so blessed to have worked with the best!

Are there any artists that you haven’t played for yet that would be a dream to?

There are a few that I haven’t worked with that I’d love to like Sting, Peter Gabriel and James Taylor.  I almost worked with James Brown. Got a call from his people and missed it by about three days from being on the road. I would love to be in a great band like Dave Matthews, The Foo Fighters, Maroon 5 or any situation where I’m not just a sideman would be awesome. I really wanted to play in Miles Davis’ electric band, although I have worked with some of his band members Herbie Hancock, Darryl Jones, Foley, Munyungo Jackson, Mino Cinelu, and Marcus Miller.

Lil John Roberts & Jill Scott

You’re a single dad and actually co-parent with Jill Scott your 5-year-old son Jett.  How is it balancing being a working musician with parenthood?

Balancing being a working musician/producer and being a father to four children has not always been a crystal stair, but through the years I’ve tried my best in being in my children’s lives. My oldest son Aaron, 22, had it the hardest with me because I was only 19 when he was born and it was the beginning of my career. It was pretty much the height of it all, starting while I was at Berklee College of Music studying and then leaving to tour with Janet Jackson in 1994. So I was on the road a lot then and missed being there for him and basically tried to play catch-up as the years went by.  My oldest daughter Khalia, 17, has been the closest to me because she’s been in Atlanta and has gotten most of my time and attention. My daughter Sydney, 9, lives in Dallas and I visit her from time to time there. My youngest son Jett, whom I have with Jill Scott is 5 and lives with her in Los Angeles. We’ve done our best in co-parenting in the midst of our hectic schedules. We have had two nannies and our families to help raise him along with us. We play tag team with him, sometimes I’ll see him in LA and other times he’ll come spend time with me in Atlanta. But it’s not easy working as a musician/producer and being daddy, but I try my best to be there as much as possible and support them. No, I’m not the perfect dad but who is? I love my children to life and they love their father and understand how hard I work, and I’m grateful to them for that and that’s all that matters.

Lil John Roberts

VIDEO: Watch the music videos for Lil’ John Roberts’ songs ‘Space’ & ‘Get Right.’

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