How DIY was the new album by a Twin Cities drummer that unexpectedly topped the iTunes jazz chart over the weekend?
“I even provided the catering for the sessions myself: Chipotle,” laughed Arthur “L.A.” Buckner, a lifelong north Minneapolis resident.
The 29-year-old percussionist was not expecting to make a chart — much less top one — when he dropped his new eight-song collection, “Big Homie,” online last week without any record label or marketing company behind it. But there it was atop the iTunes jazz album chart for much of Friday, listed right above the ever-popular “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis.
An all-instrumental album boasting a fiery blend of gospel, funk, hip-hop and traditional jazz influences, “Big Homie” includes guest contributions from local gospel bandleader Darnell Davis (on organ) and Mint Condition singer Stokley Williams (showing off his own percussion skills).
Buckner provided this short, simple explanation for how the record racked up big numbers among iTunes downloads: “My great support system.”
He then checked off a not-so-small list of supporters, starting with God (“I’m a church kid all the way”) and his family (“My mom makes a great publicist”) on down to all the students he teaches, musicians he plays with and audience members he reaches as co-host of the PBS Digital Studios’ music education series “Sound Field.”
That virtual series may have been the most crucial ingredient to push him to the top.
Originated at TPT in St. Paul for international PBS distribution, “Sound Field” recently won a Webby Award, and its episodes have racked up hundreds of thousands of views, including success on YouTube that has spilled over to Buckner’s other projects.
Given that viewers of the online show are “people of all ages who live and breathe music,” Buckner said, it’s no surprise they knew to support his new album through downloads (which pay musicians much better than digital streaming services).
“It was super-unexpected on my part,” said Buckner, who did not see it as coincidental, though. “The timing of it, to me, underscores that Minneapolis is the center of the revolution right now.”
The “revolution” he’s referring to is the push for racial justice around the world following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May.
Buckner comes from a family of gospel singers and Black community activists. His dad, Arthur Sr., was one of the siblings in the family gospel group the Minneapolis Twins, so named because the family — led by L.A.’s grandmother Thelma Buckner — was made up of three sets of twins. L.A. got his nickname from being called “little Arthur” around his dad.
Arthur Jr. has cut his own musical path since earning a degree at McNally Smith College of Music. He has performed with Davis and fellow gospel singer Jovonta Patton, rapper Dem Atlas and the funk group PHO while also teaching lessons through MacPhail Center for Music and playing every Sunday in the house band at Shiloh Temple on Broadway Avenue.
Out of all that aforementioned work, Buckner cited the weekly church gig as the primary influence on the music he composed for “Big Homie.”
“It’s jazz, but at its core it’s really still church music, as is most popular music in America,” said Buckner.
Tracks like the piano-sparked album opener “Deja Vu” and the organ-heavy “T.P.” certainly have gospel flare. The Stokley-addled tune “Dddun” — pronounced “da-da-dun,” like a drum part — goes back even further with its grab bag of African rhythms. There’s also an Afrofuturistic remake of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” on the album, featuring local Nigerian transplant Ernest Bisong on violin.
All the tunes build into a crescendo in a way that Buckner likened to “having to catch your breath at the end of each one.”
The drummer was in the midst of mixing the tracks when the Floyd tragedy and subsequent rioting happened in May. That pushed him to release “Big Homie” as soon as he could instead of waiting out the pandemic.
“To me, this sounds like it could be a soundtrack to the revolution,” he said, explaining that he wanted the music to “be as Black as it can be,” an ideology he follows in his personal life, too.
“I dress as Black as I can, I wear my hair as Black as I can, and my vernacular is unapologetically Black. So in Minneapolis, where Black people are still a relatively small part of the population, racial identity has always been a part of my daily life.”
And now it’s a part of his music. While the push for justice is immediate, Buckner is going to have to wait to support the album with performances by his band, also named Big Homie.
They do have an outdoor gig scheduled Sept. 19 at Icehouse, but that’s all the public shows for now. He hopes “Big Homie” can gain attention by other means, especially via placement in movies and TV — a goal that should be helped with this bit of iTunes success.
“There’s momentum now,” Buckner proudly noted.
There’s more of a mission now, too.