Interview with Rob “Diggy” Morrison

Rob Morrison photo for SC
8Dio Artist Spotlight. Answers by Rob Diggy Morrison / Questions by Troels Folmann. 2015

Introduction:

Rob “Diggy” Morrison is an established yet emerging multi-talent as a producer, film composer and Grammy Certified arranger (having earned that accolade through his re-mix work on Beyoncé’s, Crazy in Love single). Rob is also known for his film & television credits; Ransum Games; One Blood, the recently announced, Miami Uncovered and for The Buyout & T.A.C.T.I.C.A.L., among many others. Rob is also a long-time teacher of music to children.

You graduated with a Communications degree from the University of Arkansas. Not necessarily the traditional path to Film Composer – how did this curriculum lend itself to your future in music?

First and foremost I would like to thank the awesome team at 8Dio for giving me this opportunity to share in my musical experience, you guys rock.

Growing up in the inner city was really tough but I managed to go to a high school where my Band Director, Mr.Delano O’Banion, made sure his seniors received scholarships. In my case I was awarded three; one from Bethune Cookman, Delaware State University, and The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (for being an outstanding trombonist). I also played guitar and a just a ‘lil piano at the time. Now these are not schools known for huge music programs, like Berklee College of Music or USC School of Music, but produced some of the finest musicians on the planet and with one of the strongest musical fraternities nationwide, Kappa Kappa Psi National Honorary Band Fraternity – which I am a proud member of.

UAPB was a small college in Pine Bluff Arkansas, so connecting with the marching band and wind symphony got me hooked right away. I took a few applied theory classes and friends tutored me with what I needed. So after classes from the radio and television department – which was all part of the fine arts wing and my area of concentration – I would just go and practice my three instruments daily, skipping classes and honing in on my craft. The Theatre Arts/Communications wing was dedicated to plays and television production, so when it was time to do tech work; lights and stagehand etc., they always wanted me in the band as a reading guitarist. So I guess you can say hanging in the fine arts department was the start of my learning more about the overall scope of music theatre as a playing musician. But the real start was having friends on campus that had instruments. My roommate, Aruby Jones Jr., bought a JUNO-106 (Roland synth) and he allowed me to get familiar with it. I would study the waveforms and educate myself on all the parameters. It was fun leaning about the art of synthesizers.

Were you a childhood musician? What instruments did you play or influenced you the most? 

Yes, I was a childhood musician growing up and it was cool because my uncles played guitar, my grandmother played sort or a ragtime piano style and music filled our household daily. I would watch Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert and Soul Train and would mimic the guys in the band, lol..

I watched my uncles play the blues, so I picked up the guitar and that was my first instrument despite being told I couldn’t play in the junior high jazz band. I guess that teacher didn’t believe in me and as a kid who wants to be told you can’t do something, oh boy did it hurt, but I continued on practicing and became good at it. I even started studying George Benson and wanted to be just like him. I still use some of his techniques when I play today.

Did you know, by an early age, that music would be your life’s calling?

I knew pretty early once I picked up the guitar, but it was writing songs for me. I loved writing my own songs. I remember one of my first songs I wrote and my mother Joanne started calling me her little Burt Bacharach – how cool! I knew something was brewing I just didn’t know what but I can tell you watching live bands play as a kid inspired me a whole lot as well as the television shows that featured live entertainers like the Ed Sullivan Show. I knew then I wanted to play an instrument and be famous.

What music played in your house growing up?

The music played in our household was a lot of Motown, Staxx, The Sound of Philadelphia and my fathers singing group, The Medallions, which was a Doo-wop group signed by Leonard Chess in the 60’s. And, of course, on Sundays we got gospel music and lots of it. A local show in the 60’s that came on Sundays called, Jubilee Showcase, featured the Staple Singers and other gospel great greats from that era. But as I grew up I started realizing that music was one sided, like black kids listened to soul music and white kids listened to rock and roll. I guess I was wrong, because The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Elton John were also super great influences and that kinda changed my perspective on music and who could forget a young Jackson Five, The Osmond Brothers and Ray Charles. I could go on and on but so many to name.

Were your parents supportive of your natural talents and interests in becoming a professional musician? 

That’s a very good question because when I was about twelve my family pitched in and bought musical instruments. My Uncle Carl had given me my first guitar, a Gibson SG. My brothers, cousins and I formed a band called, Gravity, and as kids we were pretty good. Two brothers; Sheldon on bass and Randy on drums, my brother Barry on percussions and vocals, and my other brother James as our front man. We would put on concerts in our front yard and people even paid to see us. We scored a big gig for the late Mayor Harold Washington. Those were good times. Our family only wanted the best for all of us and they didn’t push us to the point were we felt we had do this. For us it was fun and and we enjoyed what we did playing music.

Tell us about teaching children music for all these 22 years. How has your approach changed as you have evolved as a musician? Is this something you will continue to do with your hectic schedule?

Yes I have taught in the public school system a very long time educating thousands of school age children. It was very easy because most kids enjoyed coming to my class because I made music fun. I literally would have to put kids out of my class because they did not want to leave.

Now here’s the catch. At most of my schools where I’ve worked in the inner city we didn’t have musical instruments, so I improvised by bringing live cats in to play demonstrating different kinds of instruments. We sang tons of songs and even made our own instruments. I would take an R&B or Pop song and rewrite the lyrics so it was kid friendly. The kids would go bananas singing to an instrumental version of I’ll Be There by the Jackson Five or a jingle from a sitcom like The Jefferson’s Movin’ On Up. As far as my approach to teaching you simply have to change with the times, but the theory is the same in every language.

No, to the last part of your question. I now work as a full-time substitute teacher and as I have emerged as a pro musician it has benefited my busy schedule, but from time to time I assist with music programs when needed. Eventually I will give up teaching and continue as a music professional.

What artists influenced you growing up? Do their stylings find their way into your work to this day? 

I think all music artists are special and bring a plethora of talent to the table. Man, come on Troels, we could be here all night with these kinds of questions – too many to name, lol!!! I was influenced by music, number one. I would have to say the arrangements get me going and very well produced song arranging is key when you can hear the different sections of the orchestra played on a Pop record like my all time favorite song arrangement wise is Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom. The players on that puppy rocked. Over the years I have studied all kinds of music from Russian Overtures to Jewish Klezmer to understand and have a love for music universally. Growing up my first score that I ever paid attention to was by Bernard Herrmann who scored Psycho for the late, great Alfred Hitchcock – totally insane. In fact you you can hear some of the same types of influences in the Cage Bundle of 8dio which I will touch on later.

How did you and Morris Hayes (famed keyboardist & musical director for Prince) overlap and become collaborators?

Well, Morris and I go back to our college days at UAPB and he was one of the first cats I saw play and had like racks of keyboards in his gear arsenal. I would often ask him questions about his gear and he would respond humbly. There was never a hard word between us. Later on I was recruited to play in a band called POLO, I guess they needed a guitar player. Okay, so I’m a freshman and they ask me to be part of their tight unit and of course I accepted. It was a cool experience. We played all over Arkansas, even Mississippi, and were the opening act for Roger and Zapp. But I was always curious about synthesizers and Morris had them. I wanted him to show me everything he knew so I could be just like him as a keyboard player.  As time went on the bands’ great run had come to an end and guys either went on to graduate or go pro, and most did as musicians. I stayed in school and Morris traveled with bands on the road and ultimately ended up in Minneapolis where his career began as a certified first class musician.

We somehow never lost contact and managed to stay in touch by phone or Skype. Morris and I have worked on various projects at his Los Angles studio, when I would fly out, or he would send me files to arrange. He was the first cat to show me around the KORG DW-8000. He had one and we would study and learn together. Our friendship spans thirty-two years in the spring. When he would come to Chicago with Prince I would be front row enjoying the band with all the perks. Morris Hayes is the kind of guy you want on your team as a musician. His words of wisdom are on point and he’s always willing to stop what he’s doing to help me. I am proud to have a friend like him. A very humble cat I’m honored to say he’s a true friend.

Is there a particular genre of music you would like to write for that you haven’t already?

Well the biggest challenge for me was that I was an assistant composer on a children’s animation produced by Sony Pictures titled, The Swan Princess Christmas, with my, now, partner Vassal Benford. I had never scored anything like that other than a cartoon greeting card. Animation is very complicated. You have to be able to think for the characters, know their moods and totally have the right sound set to make it happen. I feel having the new 8Dio Agitato Ensemble will definitely help me when I am scoring other animated films. I think any composer will tell you if you can take on animation, everything else is butter. But I would love to ultimately score a big blockbuster film like Transformers or one of the Marvel films like The Avengers. Man, to come up with a theme for one of the Decepticons or even Iron Man would be super cool. I believe it will happen.

Sounds like you have had the traditional career ladder-climb (in your case stocking record shelves in Chicago) to where you are today. Share with us how your adventure unveiled itself with highlights and lowlights, breaks, near-misses and so on.

Oh wow!!!! Now the unveiling of the good, the bad and the ugly! The good was meeting different walks of life from my first keyboard, DW-8000 to my first guitar, a 1963 Gibson SG, which I play in church every Sunday. I saw a shift in things around my college days because I was surrounded by so many talented people. I played in one of the baddest bands in the mid-south. At the time we were known as POLO, you talking about some talented brothers, wow! You could say it was my kinda coming out party to eventually put me in the position of becoming a pro musician. When I got back to Chicago I worked for Carl Fischer, a major sheet music publisher. There I came across so many titles from Marvin Hamlisch’s, A Chorus Line to Tchaikovsky’s, 1812 Overture. It was a tuning point no doubt, but I knew I had a long road to travel.

Honestly there weren’t any big highlights because I was fresh out of college and still trying to find work in my area of radio and television. But I do remember being in a recording studio with some friends and this guy comes in and says, “…you played this, man?”, I’m like…” yeah”. He asked if I could come to his studio which was in the same building, fourth floor I think. The next few days were very different because he brought me in to play keys on a remix for Michael Jackson. I was completely blown away that I had an opportunity to arrange piano and string parts around a vocal a capella I wasn’t familiar with. But got it done and I think this was the start of me understanding how arranging really works – so I wanna thank Georgie Porgie and Maurice Joshua for inviting me to the studio to be part of a bigger picture.

So, yes throughout the nineties I was told to be patient, its gonna happen, things would open up. In this line of work you are always gonna hear something positive to fire you up and it never seems to happen but you “hold on to peace”.

When did your arranging career start to gather momentum? 

I had always been a studio rat and had involved myself with playing on remix records, listening to different vocal styles from Mary J. Blidge to George Michael. So you can say this was the very start. But one day I was walking down the hall and in one of the studios this guy, Bill Pierce, was editing a film called Back Stabbers and I said I bet I can put music to that scene and, oh boy, when I spoke those words for the first time I knew this was gonna be fun. Not knowing the process of film composing or arranging I felt it was the same as writing a song with a vocal, but only this time you see the actors. I took my time and watched the scene over and over to come up with something that didn’t overshadow the scene but kinda meshed right with it. All the actors were cheering me on and from that day knew I wanted to be a film composer/arranger.

As you began to grow into an arranger who were your influencers and mentors? Did anyone specifically support you and teach you the ropes? You have identified Quincy Jones and Spike Lee as being important in your development.

I would have to say my influences were listening to television shows and watching films, anything that would heighten my level of greatness. As far as mentors, Quincy Jones was someone I looked up to being an African American composer, his style was infectious, cool and he made me feel I could score films. Spike Lee, on the other hand, a great story teller through film. Well, put it this way, his props was his music guy on his projects and the styles were kinda jazz blended until he hired Terence Blanchard – whom I am a fan of as well.

Now as far as a true mentor besides my boy Morris Hayes, and I feel bad that he’s not in my bio, but TomTom Washington from Chicago. One of the most dynamic composer arrangers this side of the world, lol. No, real talk, Tom has arranged on some heavy projects from Phil Collins to Earth Wind & Fire and of course working on and advising me on my own projects. The funny thing is that if you have been on the pro circuit and in one of the major studios, best believe they have a TomTom story. He was just that kind of guy, hard worker and serious about his profession.

Your work with Beyoncé certainly catapulted you to a high-profile level. How did this project come to you? Was the experience as compelling as the outcome?

The whole thing of working on a Grammy Award Winning Remix is pretty cut and dried. You never know what project is gonna hit or miss. Maurice Joshua was in charge of producing new music for Beyoncé’s vocals, and one day I walked into the office, like I always do, and Crazy In Love is playing. We went to work on it.  I did my thing and the rest is history. She actually loved it and through that experience came perks, trips & Grammy Camps – to talk about the art of remix production which I still do off and on. It’s been more about scoring films and learning new ways to creative.

What other artists have you done arrangements for? Any particular experience stand above the others?

In the remix production world I have worked with too many artist to name but I will say that Beyoncé or Janet Jackson would call and personally approve their projects.

When scoring for a film or television how do you approach a script that may have a call for a style of music you are less familiar with?

The script process is fun. You get to imagine right away and paint that musical pallet. I was given a script titled Ransum Games starring Elise Neal (Aalliyah, The Princess of R&B) and Wood Harris (Remember The Titans), and it called for some pretty dramatic score. I was thinking what could I add to make this one particular scene stand out? So I was able to chat with the Director and we came up with a mock score from the movie Heat, it totally rocked. Approaching a script thats unfamiliar is a natural. I remember having to do a Jewish-based film with some well known actors and I had never heard of Klezmer style music so I found myself watching Fiddler On The Roof to capture the total feel of the film. The Director was blown away at how well I was able to handle that task.

You have worked on several Indie film projects over the years. Outside the obvious, how would you characterize the difference between mainstream and Indie production?

Mainstream production is so different from indie film making in that you have a much bigger budget to handle tons of things. But there seems to be a changing of the guard because as we know, indie will always be indie, but because of content that can be played online, more film makers are rushing to the web to get content out, and real talk, even major companies are jumping on the bandwagon because its cheaper and, of course, save tons of money.

Now as this pertains to actors A, B, and C-List ones have jumped into the race as well. I have worked on web series’ that have starred major players and my point to that is, major companies are starting to put together smaller production companies and producing content on the web and indie TV stations. So actors of all levels can showcase their talents. Indie film making is never gonna die because younger people are finding new and innovative ways to make a great film, and Hollywood is hot because you can produce a low budget film with limited resources, shoot on less expensive cameras –  like the Canon 7d or the Red One – and your film is a hit.

You have several responsibilities as an arranger, musician, producer and composer. Is there one role that stands out to you as more productively challenging than the others? Is there a particular role that you see spending more time with in the future?

I think the one thing that stands out for me is always gonna be the creative process as a composer, arranger and producer. I have to wear all three hats. And also mentoring kids, to teach them about film scoring. I feel more, younger kids would benefit from my expertise in the area of composing. And, yes, the future looks brighter for me. I see myself with bigger film budgets on the table. I am scheduled to score The Jungle Book and The Marvin Gaye Bio Pic, Sexual Healing and those projects are gonna be fun as well as challenging. But the bigger picture is to continue to stay on top and learn everything I can about new technology, new software and to educate the youth in this area. That’s my ultimate prize. The only role I would spend time in is staying current and knowledgeable about the business as well as the creative side.

Give us your take on the difference of writing/arranging original music for artists to record and undertaking a specific storyline to write for in film & television.

I love this question. When a certain scene comes up in a film and I need a track that must relate to the characters, I have a team I call on for that. My process is simple. We sit down and watch the film or that scene and then we approach it with pure determination making sure that there is a certain flow to the track and the lyrical content lines are just right.

There was an instance where I was on a deadline and needed a song for this film and the guy’s computer was down, so I talked with him over the phone and explained what I needed, I gave him exact details of the scene and he was able to come up with an outstanding piece of soundtrack. We only used like twenty seconds, lol. He had written just about a full song which he was able to use for his album. So, in essence I’ll make sure that I can always taylor right around the films storyline and mesh right in with it.

It is also important to note, with regards to aspiring film composers, there is a difference between creating a SOUNDTRACK for a film and creating a SCORE for a film. A soundtrack is comprised of individual songs; recordings, typically, but not always, containing vocals placed in the film. Although, for the overall continuity of all aspects of the film, songs included in a soundtrack can be, but do not have to be, created specifically for the film. The score can be best described as all the other music you hear in a film and very time consuming because of it’s originality. The more thought provoking, mood changing elements that sometimes can make you even shed a tear. It conveys that emotion of the scene. Personally, I am thankful to have been able to compose film scores and create records for the soundtrack. And often times serve as music supervisor, either creating both the score and soundtrack or overseeing the entire music for a film.

What work/projects are you especially proud of?

I am very proud of my very first animation which I mentioned earlier, The Swan Princess Christmas, because it was my very first score assignment where I had to really use all of my earlier training,  like being in the wind symphony and marching band at UAPB and even high school. It all came back, and playing those John Philip Sousa’s marches made it even easier. And right now I’m scoring a television series titled Chi-Raq. I’m proud of this project because I was able to use sounds from the 8Dio library and actually feel them within the score. Hybrid Tools 3 was my go to and, man, that monster is powerful! I see myself using it a lot more as my films come in. I have three on my desktop to close out the year. Should be fun a lot of fun.

How did you became aware of 8Dio products?

Funny thing. I had been searching the web for new sounds and 8Dio popped up in the search engine.  I clicked on it and as soon as I dragged my mouse over the picture it played like magic. I’m like, wow, this site is cool – nevertheless I didn’t buy anything. Then months later a composer friend of mine called and asked had I heard of 8Dio and I should check out the Adagio Violins. I hadn’t heard those but when I clicked on it, I was blown away at how rich they sounded and the realness was awesome. I knew I had to purchase something.

What products are you currently using with and how have they influenced your creativity and workflow?

I have Hybrid Tools 3 and was like, yeah, this is the start of a new marriage with this amazing product. It comes with an array of booms, pulses, and my favorite, epic bends. Since then I have The Cage Bundle and the 8Dio Agitato Series and Divisi Ensemble. I am so loving it.

Well 8Dio has definitely helped my creativity. I never owned any high end brass sounds till 8Dio. The crescendos are crazy, even the different sounding effects on the woodwinds and strings – its bananas! I am able to incorporate these types of sounds into my film scores and make the world of a difference in my films. It has made my workflow much easier. I mean you have to be creative enough to know how to use your sounds; to get the most out of them. I pride myself on great plugs. It’s what a composer should live for.

What has been the best surprise about using 8DIO instruments?

The best Surprise is actually opening up an instrument for the first time and going, “damn that’s hot”…..Troels you and your team are geniuses. Thanks for the opportunity to be part of such a dynamic product I am honored. Thank you 8Dio