A Long QA with Eddie Murphy: ‘SNL,’ Making Reggae Music, Hanging Out with Bowie and Michael Jackson’s Spirit

A Long Q&A with Eddie Murphy: 'SNL,' Making Reggae Music, Hanging Out with Bowie and Michael Jackson's Spirit

Eddie Murphy

Until recently, the combination of Eddie Murphy and reggae most readily brought to mind his classic SNL sketch, “Kill the White People.” Then, without advance fanfare, the 53-year old comic legend quietly dropped “Red Light” online in late 2013.

Breaking a two-decade hiatus from releasing music, the lilting and patois-laced smoke session with Snoop Lion racked up over 5,000,000 YouTube views. Its success rekindled Murphy’s music ambitions, which had mostly hibernated privately since 1993’s Love’s Alright — and it’s Michael Jackson-buoyed single, “Whatzupwitu.”

Last month, the star of Beverly Hills Cop, The Nutty Professor, and most recently, 2012’s A Thousand Words officially released “Oh Jah Jah” on VPAL Music, the distribution arm and subsidiary of reggae powerhouse VP Records. Channeling the Exodus-era Wailers, Murphy co-wrote, co-produced and crooned the lullaby-dub lead vocals. In short order, the duppy-chasing doxology soared to the top of the iTunes reggae charts.

Reached by telephone, Murphy was basking in the good news, amidst work on a second reggae single. Slated to return to SNL for its 40th Anniversary Special on Feb. 15, the erstwhile Axel Foley spoke to Billboard about hip-hop, hanging out with David Bowie and Michael Jackson in the 1980s, and his plans for the future. 

You’ve been working on music almost non-stop for the last 20 years. What made you decide to put “Oh Jah Jah” out now?

The song is really new. I wrote it the week that Ebola broke out. I was on the balcony watching the news and the song basically came together right there — with me taking it all in and playing chords on my guitar. So I wanted to put it out now because it felt timely. Plus, I put out “Red Light” last year and people liked it.

It was written the same week as Ferguson too. What was going through your mind when you watched that?

There were a bunch of stories running on the news at that time. It felt like the whole world was going crazy. ISIS was chopping off people’s heads in the Middle East. Then Ferguson, then Ebola, and these stories were all running back-to-back in the news.

Were you surprised with the Ferguson verdict?

I’m not surprised about any type of racial madness in this country. That’s as old as bread.

You refused to be in Paramount’s 75th Anniversary photo because you were the only black person in it. Do you feel like it’s gotten better since then?

It has gotten better. They did a 100th anniversary photo and I took that and brothers was all in there. Don Cheadle. Morgan Freeman. Chris Rock. It was sprinkled with brothers. Everyone was smiling… all happy. Times have changed.

You give an interview in the Beverly Hills Cop II era where you said that SNL doesn’t exist to you, you didn’t watch it, and you had no interest in going back. What made you change your mind?

Did I say that? That was a long time ago. The show hadn’t been around for very long compared to today and I’d probably only been gone for a few years.

But it’s at 40 years and that’s a really long time. SNL is part of my history. I got on the show as a kid. That’s the show I got known from. I watch it a lot now. Any type of feelings that I had 25 or 30 years ago — those are feelings from 25 to 30 years ago. Now I have an affection for it; it’s like going back to a college reunion.

Being on SNL gives you a unique experience that almost no one else has. It’s like Harvard for the comic actor. Think of every great comedian to come out from there — it’s crazy. It’s a cultural phenomenon. Every great comedian has hosted and almost everyone great in the music business has been the musical guest. There’s nothing like SNL and now it’s in the 40th year. I’m happy to be a part of that.

Are you dusting off any old impressions for the 40th anniversary?

No, I don’t think the show is going to be sketches. I was under the impression that the show is really just going to be an overview of the last 40 years. Everyone involved with the show is going to be there and looking back at the old stuff. The people from the current cast might do some sketches though… I’m not sure.

Would winning a Grammy for music mean more to you than winning an Oscar?

Well, I already have a Grammy for Best Comedy Album. You know all of that stuff is really nice, but I already have a Grammy and a Grammy is a Grammy.

I’ll tell you what… I don’t think about awards for music. Just to have a song come out and people not be tripping about it is enough. Instead, of people being like ‘oh, he’s an actor singing,’ and all the weird energy that always follows that. People are inevitably like, ‘what the hell is this?” ‘I don’t want to hear this.’

You already had a massive hit with “Party All the Time.”

That sold a million copies. It’s one of the biggest records of Rick James’ career. It’s a great song. I still hear it all the time on the radio, and thousands of people have cut covers of it in every which way.

Do you feel like the drugs overshadowed what would’ve otherwise been a brilliant musical legacy for Rick James?

Absolutely. For a few years, it was just all the image of ‘I’m Rick James, bitch” from Chappelle’s Show. But that show isn’t on anymore and they’re still playing his music. That might have played a part in his persona and iconography, but his music has lived on.

You said that you learned everything about recording and making music from Rick James? What were the most important things you picked up from him?

I just picked up everything inadvertently, from hanging around in the studio all the time. He was a friend of mine and when you were around him, that meant you were always in the studio.

There’s a great story that Peter Tosh tells about how he learned to play guitar. There was a guy in his neighborhood and [Tosh] would just watch him play from afar every single day and go home and practice. And then one day, the guy saw [Tosh] playing downtown and was like ‘that’s really good…who taught you how to play guitar?’ And Tosh said, ‘you taught me.’

So with [James], it was a matter of being in the studio and interested in it. I’d watch how he put the records together and even today, I’ll take the same steps, chart my progress the same way.

You were friends with David Bowie at the time too. What do a 1985 Eddie Murphy and a 1985 David Bowie do when they hang out?

I never was friendly with Bowie like the same way that I was friends with [James]. We hung out a couple times.

One time, he came onto the set of Beverly Hills Cop II because he was friends with the director, Tony Scott. We were watching the Oscars that night and he came over and watched it with me. He was super normal.

One time we were playing at the Montreaux Jazz Festival and afterwards we were hanging out at this chalet there and I was in the back playing piano alone–and then out of nowhere, I hear this voice saying [in perfect Bowie imitation], “I didn’t know you played the piano.” And then I look up and it’s Bowie, and it was only he and I alone in the room.

I tell you what, I’m a really big Bowie fan and if I’m around someone like that, I don’t know how much I’m taking it all into my memories. I was starstruck and really only remembered little flickers of it.

What about the ‘Remember the Time’ video, It’s you Michael Jackson, Iman, Arsenio Hall, and Magic Johnson in an Egyptian palace. What do you remember from the making of that video?

It was surreal. You know a surreal moment never gets lost on me. Even though I got known really young, I still know when I’m having a surreal encounter. When it’s like, ‘This isn’t just regular show biz.’

So I’m sitting there with this Pharaoh shit — and I’d been to a Michael Jackson concert before — but when you’re sitting two to three feet from Michael Jackson doing Michael Jackson, it’s a trip.

It was like seeing someone plugged into a wall socket — especially if you knew him and talked to him on a normal day. He was a frail dude until he does this Michael Jackson thing and then you realize the concept of a spirit world. He’s tapping into a deeper spirit. You know how like when you drink different alcohols, they contain different spirits — some make you want to dance, some make you horny, some make you want to fight. Or certain drugs bring out different spirits. Well, when I saw that, it was confirmation that the spirit world was real.

What was it like hanging out with Michael Jackson on a day-to-day basis?

If you interact with anyone, ultimately, all people are the same. However, they’re dressed, when you’re in the house with a person, they’re going to be a regular human being.

It’s like this one episode of 20/20 that I once saw. They went into a Motel 6 and into the 4 Seasons and when they turn on a black light, it’s equally nasty in both places.

That’s the same as when the door closes and it’s just human beings in the room. He was just a person — a total eccentric and different, but I’d seen him around his family, his kids, his house, and at work in the studio, and he was just a real dude. He was showbiz, but he was a real dude.

You had a skit on Delirious, where you talk about singers, even ugly singers, get all the girls. Do you think that’s still the same today?

Nah, it’s not just the singers now, it’s anyone in show business that gets the girls. The girls like the people in show business.  I’ll tell you what about Michael Jackson: Delirious was the first time anyone ever did a joke about him — and it was tame. Michael thought it was funny. It’s also one of the first times you heard anyone do a singing impression of him.

When you were growing up in New York in the ’70s and early ’80s, were you into hip-hop at all? Because your teenage years dovetailed with the birth of hip-hop culture.

Chris Rock assessed that for me once. He said, ‘the reason you didn’t have the same reaction to hip hop was that you were famous already.’ I was already famous when people like Run DMC jumped off — so I was more looking at those guys like peers.

Did you dislike hip-hop at first?

I never hated hip-hop. It became the new rock and roll. It became the biggest thing that Africans have ever done in the history of the Americas. Hip-hop put more black Americans on than anything before it. It fed more people. It allowed them to diversify into clothing lines and billion dollar headphone companies.

Will Smith was the biggest star in the world. He’s hip-hop. Black folks never had anything like hip-hop, but I already had my own thing when the hip-hop wave jumped off. They weren’t my heroes, because I was running with them.

Do you listen to any rappers or new artists today?

I listen to everything, I listen to the stuff that comes out of the radio — whatever the big hit is, I usually like the big hit, whether it’s from a rapper or a singer. When it comes to my own favorites, I usually go back to the old stuff from when I grew up: Motown and The Beatles, Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley.

Why do you think Bob Marley continues to resonant with people?

It’s his spirit — what he’s saying will never go old, Bob was a rock star with all the rock star stage presence. Plus, he came with lyrical heady music. He was unique. Lee Perry said in a documentary, ‘People love him because the way he tells his story pitiful’ [in a perfect Lee Perry accent].

Basically, he made his story sound pitiful. But there’s prophecy in those songs, in the way he mixes the spiritual and the physical.

Are you going to cut a whole album of reggae songs?

I’m doing another reggae song. I’m not trying to do just reggae though. It’s more like, ‘we dropped [‘Oh Jah Jah’] last Tuesday and it started doing well and they’re like ‘let’s cut this other reggae song.’ It’s called, “One of These Nights.”

I’ve got my fingers crossed. It’s on the iTunes charts for Reggae. Once I’m on the Billboard charts for reggae, I’m putting a band together. That’s when I know it’ll be the time to do it.

Do you find similarities between acting and making music?

Everything is an extension from the same artist I can be creative and do impressions in acting, and I can do the same with music.

It’s partially my ear as an impressionist. I know what a country song is supposed to sound like, and once I hear it, I can take it in. But it’s not just voices. I can do an imitation of your writing style. I could read four or five articles that you wrote and then write one and put it down the middle, and ask your editor to pick the one you wrote, and they couldn’t tell.

So when I’m in the studio and doing songs like “Red Light” or “Oh Jah Jah,” I’m doing retakes to sound less like Bob Marley. Because if I wanted to, I could make them sound like lost Bob Marley tracks. It’s a matter of me remembering to take the essence of it and keep myself in the center of it. But I go in all types of different directions. I listened to all sorts of stuff growing up.

What’s next for you?

I’m going to keep putting tracks out, making movies and making people laugh. I’m still going to continue to be Eddie.