New Brunswick favorite son and Makin Waves’ 2017 Male Artist of the Year Sharief Hobley chats about his illustrious career as a session man and touring musician.
Sharief Hobley may not be a household name to the rest of the world, but in New Brunswick, he’s a music legend. A member of such great 1980s bands as Knew Breed and Spy Godz and leader of Fried Ice Cream and now Sharief in Burgundy, Hobley has done sessions and/or toured with the likes of Michael Jackson, Kanye West, John Legend, Alicia Keys and Rufus Wainwright.
Back home for a while after 20 years of establishing his music career in Brooklyn, Hobley still performs at and co-leads a sizzling, often star-studded showcase night and open mic every Tuesday in BK. Soul Acoustic Tuesdays happens at Bijan’s, 81 Hoyt St.
And every Sunday, Hobley helps lead worship at Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion in the Bed-Stuy section of BK in praise of God, who permeates all of his music and performances, which often are like a cross between Prince and Curtis Mayfield.
Check out Hobley when he performs with special guests on Feb. 16 at Delta’s in New Brunswick, where he will return on April 5 during the sixth annual Hub City Music Festival to benefit the Elijah’s Promise food justice and empowerment program. He will share that bill with jazzy, funky Danielle Illario.
Hobley also will play Hub City Music Festival in a reunion of Spy Godz — also vocalist-keyboardist Robin Renée, drummer-percussionist Bob Ramos and guitarist Marcello McDonnell — on April 7 at their old stomping grounds, The Court Tavern. That bill also will feature a reunion of Wooden Soldiers, another Court Tavern favorite from the ’80s.
I recently chatted with Hobley about his New Brunswick roots, his successful career as a sideman, his weekly showcase and worship team, and plans to release more of his own music.
Q: What turned you onto the New Brunswick music scene, when and how?
A: I was born in New Brunswick and have always had a love of music and live instrumentation. So I guess you could say I’ve always been into the New Brunswick music scene.
It wasn’t until junior/senior years of high school and freshman year of college that I myself (along with my older cousin’s ID) started frequenting some of the local bars and clubs in town back then, such as The Court Tavern, The Melody, The Roxy and occasionally J. August, to check out bands. And it wasn’t long before I starting playing out in bands like Knew Breed and Spy Godz, and then forming my own bands, Fried Ice Cream and later Sharief in Burgundy.
Q: How did being raised in the church influence your musical interest, skills, style and opportunity?
A: That was my musical training growing up. I learned everything from singing and playing drums and piano in church. I got all of my knowledge of vocal phrasing, harmonies and chord structure from gospel and R&B music.
In terms of style and opportunity, when I did start to play professionally, naturally I gravitated more to the R&B and hip-hop scene because that was closer to my roots in music, and music I listened to growing up. R&B is an extension of gospel, and hip-hop at that time was mostly samples of music I’d grown up on. I used to pride myself in being able to name where a sample came from right away. I still do.
Q: How and when do you continue to play church music?
A: I’m a member of the music ministry at Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion in Bedstuy, Brooklyn, where I play guitar and sing every Sunday. But in truth, I take God with me everywhere, and put God in everything I do. So in my eyes, every performance is somewhat of a gospel performance.
Q: How does it feel to be reuniting with Spy Godz and playing with a reunited Wooden Soldiers on April 7 at the Court Tavern for Hub City Music Festival?
A: It feels great! I haven’t played with Spy Godz in ages. And aside from recording, I haven’t played bass on a gig in ages either. It’ll be challenging and fun all at the same time. I’m very excited for the show!
Q: You also are playing the festival at Delta’s on April 5 with Danielle Illario. Comment on why you wanted to do both shows to help raise money for Elijah’s Promise? Why is Elijah’s Promise important to you and to the community?
A: I think it’s important to give back in whatever way we can. Times are hard all around for a lot of people. Not everyone has the means to reach into their pockets all the time. But if we can lend our time and/or our talents to help, that, as well, is giving back. I’m proud to be a part of it.
Q: Bands you’ve led are Fried Ice Cream and Sharief in Burgundy. Tell me a little about them, your favorite memory and anything else you would like to share. You’ve also developed an exceptional career as a session player and touring musician. Please share your favorite credits and gigs, when they took place, what you liked most about them and what you learned most from them.
A: I’m not sure I can narrow it down to one or even a few memorable or favorite moments. They were all exceptional.
I’ve been blessed to have worked with artists whose music I really liked, so every experience was equally as awesome as the next. From recording with Hub Moore, my very first “major label” recording session, to writing and recording on Philly’s own Kindred the Family Soul’s first record, to recording on John Legend’s first three records, Alicia Keys’ Grammy-winning song “You Don’t Know My Name,” to recording on multiple sessions with Kanye West and, of course, recording my own music.
I would always look for new ways of doing things, and watch how different producers and engineers would get certain sounds, what I like to call “producer’s tricks.” I take all of that knowledge with me when it’s time to record myself.
One of my fondest memories was recording an EP for my old band Fried Ice Cream with Andrew Weiss. Just watching him work in Pro Tools gave me a template for when I eventually started to record on my own in GarageBand. Although the programs are different, the approach is still the same. And although that EP never saw the light of day, the experience taught me how to record digitally.
Q: How is the New Brunswick music scene different today than when you were first a part of it in the late 1980s?
A: For one, there simply were more live music venues in town then. I think in general, live music and going to see live bands was more of “the thing to do” back then. It was a different era all together. And of course, being young and a sponge at the time, I was open to any and everything artistic. I would find myself always out and about seeking for what was cool and looking for inspiration.
Live music here has migrated more to the basement and restaurant scene in this town nowadays.
Q: What do you think should be done to make the New Brunswick music scene better and stronger?
A: Bring back some venues. You would think with this being a college town, there’d be more places to play and more interest in the live scene. Maybe there is a strong interest, and it’s just all in the basement scene now? I know a lot of people in my age group are not necessarily down with that because of the safety issues. And I’ve really only been back in town a little over a year myself, but it seems aside from a few restaurants downtown, there’s really nowhere else to play.
Q: Why did you leave New Brunswick for Brooklyn, what brought you back, and how long do you expect to stay in your home area?
A: I left in 1997. I was ready to take my career to the next level, and it just wasn’t happening around here.
We’d already made a name for ourselves in all the venues in town with whatever band I was in at the time. And although both Spy Godz and Fried Ice Cream were getting some major label attention, it was next to impossible to get A&Rs to come to New Brunswick.
I moved back here for family matters. Unfortunately, my Mom’s health took a little turn for the worst, and she was hospitalized and in rehab for a total of about four months. So my presence was needed around the house.
How long I’ll be here is still a question. Thank God, Mom is doing much better now, so there’s a very good chance I’ll be making a move sometime in the near future.
Q: Tell me about the weekly gig you do in Brooklyn and what you enjoy most about it.
A: I and a good friend Jeff Brodnax, former lead singer of 24-7 Spyz, started a night at a place formerly called KILI back in 2002. A mutual friend of ours became part owner of this new restaurant that opened in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn (called Bijan’s next to downtown), and they needed some attractions to bring people in. He and I both being singer-songwriters, we started playing there on Tuesday nights just to get people to come in. Then we started inviting our musician friends to come and perform. The night began to grow to the point where we had so many people coming to perform we had to start writing the names down so no one would get forgotten, and everyone would get their chance to shine, ultimately turning the night into a showcase/open mic night. I’ve always hesitated to call it an “open mic” because the level of talent we’d get was above the bar of the average open mic night. And it’s still that way most of the time.
I always loved having a place to stay busy if you will … a place to try out new songs, work out ideas. And I’ve always enjoyed providing a space for artists to come and do their thing. We harvest some really good and, at times, great talent! A lot of networking goes on, which is a part of what it’s all about. I guess nowadays, I love most that I helped to start this great night that has become a Brooklyn Institution. It’s one of Brooklyn’s longest running artist showcase/open mic nights.
Q: When did you release your last record and what was the response to it?
A: OMG, too long ago (laughs). I’ve technically only released one full-length ever back in 2005. I did release a single, entitled “Promise Me,” over a year ago, and currently working on the next full-length record.
“Promise Me” got very good response. I haven’t sold a million copies yet (laughs), but it gets great response whenever we perform it live. It’s one of those songs that quiets the room whenever we play it. The studio recording has also gotten a lot of positive reviews and feedback. It was a completely independent DIY project with no budget or financial support to properly market the release. So we’re dealing with strictly social media posts and word of mouth.
Q: When will your next record come out and what is your favorite track from it and why?
A: I don’t have a specific date. While I do think it’s important to set goals, I don’t like to put a time frame on creativity. I’m not compromising anything on this next record. I want it to be the best it can be. If that means it’s gonna take another six months to finish it, then so be it!
Moving back here sort of forced me to put a hold on things for a while. My apartment in Brooklyn was my studio. Living back in the family house, I don’t have that luxury anymore. Also, it’s not always so easy to focus.
I have recently started recording again and going through all of the songs. There’s a lot of ’em. Mostly started and not finished, some closer to being finished than others. I can’t say I have a favorite. The favorite is usually the one I’m working on at the time (laughs).
Q: Beside the recording plans, appearances at Hub City Music Festival, and weekly gig in BK, what else do you have going on and coming up that folks should check out?
A: This Friday, Feb. 16, I’ll be performing at Delta’s in downtown New Brunswick at 19 Dennis St. The first set starts at 7 p.m. with a solo acoustic set. Then I’ll bring up some players: Mark Clark on drums, and David Holder, aka D’Bass, on bass. And we’re hoping to get a few special guests to come through that night as well. I’ve invited Bindi Liebowitz, who was on “The Voice” to come down and do a few songs, and we’ll see who else shows up.
Bob Makin is the reporter for MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And like Makin Waves at facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.