In this interview Juanquin Jessup talks about a bit of everything.
By William Hernandez
WHO?MAG: Where are you from and how did you get into music? Juaquin Jessup: I’m from Washington D.C. I got into music at least from the guitar perspective, when I was in junior high. What happened was I had a buddy, and he used to play guitar, and there was this girl that I liked and she seemed to like him. Now she wouldn’t talk to me she would only talk to him and I figured it was because he played guitar. So I picked up the guitar and kinda taught myself how to play and that’s how I got into it. I always liked music but I never really knew how to play an instrument until I picked up the guitar and figured it out. I started picking up a couple things from watching people and I really wasn’t into the guitar the way I ended up being into it until I heard Jimi Hendrix. I hate to say it and I know it sounds corny, but that’s what really really got me into the guitar. I was like geez man I can’t believe what I’m hearing. That’s when I got really opened up to what the guitar could do. After that I got hooked on it.
WHO?MAG: How’d you hook up with Mandrill? Juaquin Jessup: Well, I lived in D.C. and back when I was like 16, I got in this band around Washington called New Breed. It was a bunch of older guys so I was really young. I was at the barbershop one day and this guy comes in talking about this band and he said they needed a guitar player. So I told him I played guitar and got in that band. At first, they didn’t know I could solo until like a month later one night they said why don’t you take a solo. When I did that I started playing all these rock licks and it ended up to eventually I kept jammin with this group, which led to us doing a lot of Parliament Funkadelic covers. Then I heard Mandrill on a record and it kinda blew my mind. I was hearing all these congas and all this rhythm stuff and syncopation that I’d never heard of in a Top 40 tune. So I just started getting into them and we started covering a lot of their songs. Then we did a gig with them at this coliseum in Baltimore where we did a lot of P-funk and we did a lot of Mandrill songs where I was copying their guitar player’s solos note for note then stretching it out. So what happened was they saw me play and they talked to me for a little bit, took my number down and said I played pretty well. That was the last I heard from them. Then about a month or two went by and this was really wild…I had this dream that Mandrill called me. So about a week after that these guys call me up and say their guitar player split do I wanna come up to New York and audition. So I went up there, auditioned for these guys, and I played for hours straight battling against different guys they kept cycling through. After about 13 hours man they said that’s it ,you go back to D.C. and we’ll call you. I heard from them a little while later and they asked me to come out to L.A. for a couple of days to hear me play again. So I went to L.A. packed up clothes for two days and I ended up staying there for two and a half years. I was playing with them for two and a half years. That’s how that happened.
WHO?MAG: Which Mandrill album was the first one you did with them? Juaquin Jessup: First one I was officially on was “We Are One.” Then we did a soundtrack for this movie Muhammad Ali had called “The Greatest.” It was us and George Benson. So I was on that album. Even after I left the group they still had recordings that I had played on from the studio. So I think I was on a couple of others songs and albums that came out even after I left the group, but the primary album I was on was “We Are One.”
WHO?MAG: What do you remember about the recording process of “We Are One”? Juaquin Jessup: That was very exhausting actually because we did a lot of rehearsal. We used to rehearse every day. My whole job was just playing with those guys. During the day I would do my own thing and then in the evenings we would go to the rehearsal studio and just practice and jam and practice and jam. So when we actually recorded the album man we stayed in that studio sometimes it felt like we were in there for days without coming out. I really enjoyed it but at the same time it was very strenuous because it was very intense. It was a good experience but it was hard work.
WHO?MAG: What do you remember about recording “The Greatest” soundtrack? Juaquin Jessup: That was very wild! The guy that wrote a couple of the songs his name was Michael Masser and he had written “Mahogany” and a few other things so we had to work with him. But we constantly had to come back around to where he was hearing the material going you know what I mean. We had to kinda tailor the way we liked to groove and jam and the ideas that Mandrill had. We had to constantly push that aside and come back to where Michael Masser wanted things to go. But still even within those confines we were able to get stuff out there that I thought was representative of Mandrill in terms of style. So it was an enlightening experience because I had never done a soundtrack to a movie. There would be times we were in the studio and there would be a huge orchestra in there and that was exciting because I had never seen that. They would be doing orchestration on top of real funky rhythms that we had laid down. Then there were all kinds of percussion instruments I had never seen man. It was incredible. From time to time Muhammad Ali would come down and joke with all of us and talk all kinds of stuff. So it was a great thing. I really had a lot of fun doing that but it was still a lot of work. But it was fun.
WHO?MAG: How about working with George Benson? Juaquin Jessup: I didn’t really meet him because of the way everything went. We did our thing right and then they would take the tapes and you would never know when they would be calling other artists. It could be two or three weeks or a month and then their working with somebody else. By that time you’re off doing your own thing on your other projects. So we didn’t really get to record with him even though we were on the same album. So that’s how that went.
WHO?MAG: How did “Hang Loose” come about? Juaquin Jessup: That was before I got with the guys. I was still in high school when that came out. They never really told me much about what inspired that song. You know that was before my time. But I had to play the song when we went on tour. I had to play all those songs when we went on shows.
WHO?MAG: What was the act you most enjoyed playing with? Juaquin Jessup: I think I would have to say Tower of Power. One time we did a gig with them. I had also done a lot of Tower of Power gigs when I was playing with local bands. But when we played with them I enjoyed that show because I always liked their guitar player and then I got to see him play. Most of the real fun I had was just playing with Mandrill. When we went on tour I was just so happy and just having so much fun and groovin man. I used to be in a trance up there on stage because we’d be getting into these funky grooves. That was where I got most of my enjoyment was just playing with those guys.
WHO?MAG: What’s the wildest thing you ever saw with Mandrill? Juaquin Jessup: The wildest thing? (Laughs) I have to temper that. It depends on the context that you’re talking about. The wildest thing I ever saw was the time when me and Lou were hanging out coming back from the studio. At this time I still didn’t have a place I was crashing with Lou and his family because I had just got out there. So we were coming home and we were driving up through the mountains on the way to his house. As were driving we see all these people crowded around so I said stop the car and we went over to see what was going on. It’s real early in the morning still dark outside. So we go over there and this guy is on the ground. He had gotten shot and all these people are surrounding him in their night gowns and night clothes while Lou and I are standing there with dreadlocks and leather coats. We’re saying “what happened, what happened over here?” when all of a sudden the cops roll up. They hop out the car they got shotguns and everything and their pointing at us. One cop is like “who’s got the gun? Who’s got the gun?” and he’s shaking pointing the gun at me and Lou. I’m like 19 or 20 and I’m like, I’m getting ready to get killed. So we put our hands up and we just start backing up slowly. We backed up out of the scene and the policeman didn’t realize we were backing away. He’s just hopping all over the place with the shotgun now pointed at the people. We backed away very slowly and we got in our car and drove away. They didn’t even realize that we did that. We drove away about a block or so and we heard a BOOM! We kept driving and we never heard anything about it in the paper or the news, anything. To me that was the wildest thing that ever happened when I was with the band.
WHO?MAG: Why did you leave the group after “The Greatest” album? Juaquin Jessup: It was just a multitude of things. When I went out there in the first place I never expected to stay. I thought I was going for a two day audition so I wasn’t really prepared mentally to stay. I stayed for two years. I played with them for two years. In the end I think what happened was I had a lot of loose ends back in D.C. I had left a lot of people. I pulled up all my roots and just went out there. I started feeling homesick and that was the biggest thing. I had someone I really cared about and she was still back in D.C. I was missing the family, my mom, my brothers and sisters. So it got to a point where I still wanted to play with Mandrill, but I felt like my roots where back on the east coast. I made that decision and I came back. Plus when I left the group music had changed. Everything was disco and the disco scene had really messed up everything for groups like Mandrill. There were only a couple of groups still able to sustain the way that they needed to, to keep their machinery going. I’m not saying Mandrill couldn’t do that, but at that time Disco had just grabbed hold of the whole music scene and had changed it drastically. Some of those changes I just couldn’t deal with it the way they affected what I was doing at the time when I was in California. So that was part of the reason I came back as well.
WHO?MAG: I’m a hip hop generation guy. What are your thoughts on hip-hop music? Juaquin Jessup: I think that hip-hop is just another genre of music. I like some of it. I like the hip-hop that I think is innovative not just lyrically, but also musically and rhythmically. But when it comes to the Gangsta Rap not necessarily just gansta, but when they start getting into a lot of derogatory lyrics and things of that nature I have a problem with that. I think that when the young people hear that it’s not really beneficial. Not saying that everything that I heard when I was young listening to music was beneficial but it just seems to be much worse today. I’m not saying its all hip-hop. I’m just saying some of the rappers. The reason why I say that is because on the radio in D.C. all you really hear is rap and hip-hop. You don’t really hear a lot of songs that have any kind of structure similar to what I’m used to hearing back in what they call the old days. You know what I mean.
WHO?MAG: How do you feel about artists’ sampling Mandrill? Juaquin Jessup: Hey man, I think if it works go for it. But I think it would be nice to see some guys come up with their own things that are just as funky as Mandrills’. Their own bass lines, their own drum beats and songs that have that kind of syncopation and integration of rhythm. It would be good to see guys originate their own things so they could take that forward. But sampling Mandrill is good because it keeps us out there. It could be that nobody can surpass what Mandrill wrote. Imma tell you, NOBODY ever in my estimation EVER will approach the kind of songs that Mandrill created, the kind of funk that they created man. NOBODY.
WHO?MAG: Do you still keep in touch with them? With the Wilson Brothers? Juaquin Jessup: Not really. I see them from time to time. Every once and a while they come thru D.C. and I’ll go to a show. But they know so many people and they still travel and their itinerary is very exhausting so it’s really hard to keep up with everybody. It’s super tough man. I talk to them every few years, but not much.
WHO?MAG: What do you do now as far as your career?
Juaquin Jessup: I’m a network engineer, but right now I have a team of engineers and we work for a healthcare organization. It’s a pretty big hospital, so we design their wireless networks we design their computer networks. So you see guys walking around with wireless devices, we design things like that for them and maintain those things. I do that right now. I do music as more of a hobby thing for me, but it will never be something I totally give up because its in me. So a lot of times the music is my outlet for me when I don’t want to focus on the other stuff. It also seems like the same mental process, the engineering work and playing music. But right now I’m more focused on the engineering work.