Interview: Tori Ruffin, Pour on the Juice!

Tori Ruffin may be best known for his work with Prince and Morris Day and the Time, both flagship ambassadors of the Minneapolis funk sound in the 1980s, but he’s actually had a surprisingly varied career. In the past, he has supported hip hop acts as notable as Snoop Dogg, as well as punk bands as wild as the Bad Brians and Fishbone. His own band, Freak Juice, have just released a new album out on Horton Records, titled They Call Us Juice.

They Call Us Juice is nothing if not eclectic, combining Ruffin’s broad musical interest, from metal to reggae to funk and hip hop, busting grooves and breaking hearts every step of the way. It’s a party record in a manner that is almost entirely lost to time. The grooves are thick, the atmosphere is bright and clear, and the attitude is welcoming.

Even when dealing with subjects as serotonin sapping as police violence (“Hands To The Sky”), racial suppression (“Dirty Little Secret”), and corrupt politicians (“Hypocrite”), They Call Us Juice still manages to retain its festive spirit, acknowledging dark pasts and hard truths while pressing forward into the fresh light of new, hopefully, brighter day.

Because his record is so much fun, and Ruffin has such a unique career trajectory, we called him up for a conversation about his new record and to learn how he’s been holding up in the middle of an epoch-defining upheaval resulting from the unset of a global pandemic. The resulting interview is full of life lessons about connecting with others humanity and understanding the struggle of everyday Americans while maintaining an indelible optimism about the future.

Below is a transcript of a phone conversation that took place on November 19, 2020. It has been edited slightly for the sake of clarity and brevity.

So, your new album is self-produced? Do you have label support for this release?
I have help from a label here in town called Horton Records, and they’re a nonprofit label, and they give a little bit of financial support and just all the love and help that they can give, being not a traditional label. You know what I mean? They don’t have a huge marketing team and things like that. Brian Horton is the founder and leader and owner of it, and he’s done a great job for me. I mean, giving me the help that I needed to really bring this record home.

That’s cool that you’re working with a nonprofit label. Have you put out records with them before?
No, it’s my first time. They do whatever they can to help, and let us keep 100 percent of the profits, man. It’s unheard of! It’s a blessing! It’s fantastic for indie artists, for sure. You can’t ask for anything better.

Well, they’re not looking to make a profit.
[Laughs] Which is unheard of, right?

Yeah. Most businesses can’t operate that way.
Well, you know, with a nonprofit you do get to take care of your administrative costs. But they don’t take anything from the artists, which is the main thing. They get donations and stuff from the government and arts grants and stuff like that. So, that’s a big part of it. Then we do shows for them too, and that helps. It’s great!

Freak Juice
Freak Juice

How does that record deal look compared to the types of deals that you’ve had with for-profit record labels?
Oh, it’s night and day! Again, [Horton] is not asking for anything. And it’s really just on a handshake. They help pay for some of the recording costs, mastering costs, and the printing of CDs. And they got me with Maggie [Poulos, Mixtape Media], and I believe they’re paying for some of that, if not all of it. I had a record deal back in the nineties, and I think we got, like, 7 cents a record or something like that.

Oh man! That’s not great. But, you know, I’ve heard of worse.
Yeah, and of course you have the trade-offs. Big labels have multimillion-dollar marketing teams, which are supposed to help push it out, and then you’re in the system as well. But, you know, this record, and this project, they’ve been my passion, and I just don’t you know if I’d do well on a traditional label that wants you to be in a box anyway.

Traditional labels want you to do just one genre, or just play the same song all the time. I grew up on a lot of different styles and have played a lot of different kinds of music. And I really think that people, you know, they don’t mind you bending in different genres and going over here and there, and doing different stuff. Doing a groovier song here than a heavier song. I think that’s how most people’s tastes are, you know.

Yeah. Most people are not, like, on a rail when it comes to their musical interests. It’s actually pretty rare to find someone who actually only listens to one style. But that’s not the way music is typically marketed, which is like, “This genre is for these people. X demo likes Y.” And it’s because they know, or think they know, how to market it that way.
Right! I’m not the only one that believes that, obviously. A big influence for me is Fishbone; they’ve crashed genres on their records, as well. There’s plenty of other people who do it. But I just wanted to do a record that reflected my tastes and what I like to do.

The press for this album cites Stevie Wonder and Led Zeppelin as polar reference points for what you’re trying to accomplish …
Yeah, if I had written that, it would have gone: Prince, Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin, and George Clinton. Led Zeppelin on the rock side. On the funk side, Prince and George Clinton. And then, on the jazz side, definitely Miles Davis. Those would be the three things that drive Freak Juice.

Do you think you’d be so influenced by Prince if you hadn’t played with him and hadn’t been in The Time?
Oh, absolutely! I was just talking about this with somebody else. If you listen to my earlier records that I did before I even joined The Time, if you were a black musician, especially a guitarist, coming up in the ’80s … well, I really got into it in the ’80s … So first, there was Hendrix you looked up to, but, then there was Prince! He was the only other person really on that rock guitar vibe! I mean, there was Ernie Isley, and then there were the guys from Parliament, but as far as TV, and seeing somebody that was doing it, that was all Prince! You know what I mean?

So coming up, my rhythm style was very influenced by Prince. In the ’80s, he ruled the airwaves! So, you played rhythm guitar like Prince if you wanted to work. And everybody loved him! So, with The Time, you learned all his songs. You learned the rhythm, and you learned to replicate other people’s records. You had to play that Minneapolis style there for a while. There was a band called Civil Rights, and my first record, if you listen to it, or the Features record after that, listen to any of the rhythm stuff on those records, and you can definitely hear that Minneapolis funk style. So most definitely!

Ah, so Prince would have always been a part of your life, whether or not you actually got to play with him.
Absolutely! And when he passed, I hadn’t realized how big a part of my past he had been, musically. I really got to reflecting about it … Everything that he meant to me. It was huge!

He was a really transcendent figure. He was really able to hop over a lot of barriers that existed even into the ’80s for black musicians.
Oh yeah! He was able to break into MTV along with Michael Jackson. You know, he started all of that with Purple Rain, you know? As you know, MTV didn’t have any black acts on there for a while and Prince and Michael Jackson were the first to break the color barrier, so to speak. It feels weird talking about color barriers in the ‘80s. [Laughs] The ‘60s were a long time ago. [Laughs]

It doesn’t seem like it should have been possible for those types of barriers to have still existed at that time.
Yeah, it shouldn’t have been a thing, but that just goes to show you, we got a long way to go.

Right. And you address a lot of these issues on your new album. Even going back into history and talking about some really awful stuff like the Tulsa Massacre. Was it difficult translating such serious material into what is essentially a party record?
You know, most artists are sensitive people, and I’m no different. I’m a very sensitive individual. And creatively, I’ve always been an artist that, if it effected me, I can’t help myself, I want to sing or write about it. I started working on this record, really, after Obama had left and Trump was in office. And all these things were happening and it effected me deeply.

But the song about the Massacre … When I first got to Tulsa, I came here in 2003 or 2004, I’m originally from Detroit, but I’ve spent the majority of my career and life in L.A., but when I started coming here and doing shows with Freak Juice, I would hear stories about the Tulsa massacre and the Tulsa Race Riot. Just little bits and pieces. I was like, “Wow, really?” And one day, my rapper Chris [Simpson] sat me down and told me the whole deal, and it affected me deeply. And I just felt compelled to write about it. Because I had never heard about it, it wasn’t being talked about, and then recently, you know … now it’s a big deal.

60 Minutes did a thing on it, I guess, came out in 1999, but people are talking about it again. And then just recently, the Watchmen and Lovecraft Country on HBO just mentioned it. So all these things are coming out about it now, but you know, I wrote it about five, or maybe even six years ago. It affected me and I had to get it down some kind of way. So that’s how that all came into place. I felt compelled to write and sing about it. It’s difficult to sum it up in all of two verses, I think they’re eight-bar verses actually, but I think we got the gist of the story.

Like most artists, I’m really very hopeful. And I would like to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And I believe, like most artists believe, that love will always prevail over hate. So I try and give that picture. So I always try to find a little light at the end of the tunnel, even though the messages are sometimes dark.

But, we have a dark past for a history. We got to know it and we got to talk about it. So we don’t make the same mistakes, and we can move forward and figure out, you know, how do we all, be the country that we profess to be. Land of the free, home of the brave, for every American. So you just got to keep striving towards that. The only way to do that is to talk about it. Admit the mistakes, don’t bury the past.

Backing up a bit, how long did you say you’ve working on this album?
I’ll be honest with you. About five years. I mean conceptually … yeah. So, I’ve been working on this about five years. You know, with Morris, I was touring so much, so we’d get a couple of things down, and we’d play them.

And, you know, we’d be out on the road the whole summer, and then I’d work a little bit more on them in the fall. And everyone’s like, “Come on, man! When you getting this record out?” And then this pandemic hit! And then I just put it to bed. I just got to the studio, threw all my energy into getting it done. And so in some ways, you know, there is a silver lining to the pandemic, because it made me get my record out.

Hmmm … so we have the pandemic to thank for this record. It’s the only good thing that came out of it. [Laughs]
Yeah, but don’t quote me on that. [Laughs] It is horrible what is happening, though. We just have to kind of stay safe and do the best we can. And it got me off the road. That definitely helped me, being off the road.

In some ways, the pandemic has helped certain people, people who have the opportunity to, you know, sort of take a step back. To refocus their energy in some ways and reprioritize things.
Right. Right. Absolutely. Now, if you can’t go anywhere, you have to find things to focus on and put your energy towards.  So, I think a lot of musicians got busy writing and doing things and working on projects.

Right. And you’re out of the touring rat race for the moment. Sorry. I just referred to touring as a rat race. I don’t know if that’s actually your experience of it at all.
You know what, when I was younger, I used to love the road. I mean, getting on a jet, getting on the tour bus, hanging out with no responsibility other than playing my guitar, what’s wrong with that? [Laughs] Who in their right mind would complain about that? And then now that I’m much older, getting on a jet at six in the morning, getting up at five in the morning, it is a little tougher. [Laughs]

But when I was younger, I had a ball with it, and really, you know, you’re doing something that you love. So, that’s the hardest part, the traveling part. It’s not the playing part. But, at one point, I think Morris went down with a hip replacement surgery, and we were off the road. And a buddy of mine, he had a pawn shop, and I was just kinda sitting around, you know, so I asked him if I could just come in for a few hours a day and help him out.

He said sure, so I did, and that was the first job I had since I was a kid, which was like at a Carl’s Jr or something. But man, I got a real chance to appreciate how fortunate and lucky, I have been to be able to make a living playing music because people have to go in this one building every day, five-eight hours a day, 40 hours a week and do that, over and over again.

And, you know, I learned the value of a dollar, and that sounds funny, right? But I’ve always just played and the money has been pretty good. So, when I had to work, eight hours or five hours a day for I think it was $10 an hour … Now that really tripped a chord in me, man. And then I said to myself, “Man, I’ll never turn down a $100 gig again in my life!” Or a $50 gig, or any gig where they are paying money! [Laughs] I really felt humbled and appreciative of my life at that point, just being able to play guitar and doing what I love and being able to pay the bills.

Freak Juice
Freak Juice

Right, and the situation that most people in this country find themselves in, even before the pandemic, is not good.
I’m not a millionaire, by any stretch of the imagination, but you know I do alright. People out there working for $7, 10, $12 an hour, you know. That’s a hard way to make money and try to support yourself.

Yeah, you’re right.
But again, I’m hopeful. Hopefully, better times are ahead.

Right. And you’ll be able to get back out there with your guitar again soon.
Yeah, and being with people too. And that’s another thing, man. I really got a chance to realize how I took people for granted. You don’t realize how you take people for granted until you lose contact with them, can’t be with them, can’t do shows. And it is definitely different playing a live stream show with nobody there. So you don’t feel that energy. That appreciation. You miss that.

How are you fulfilling your need to be social while remaining safe and at a respectful distance from others?
It’s been hard to totally end my social life. I’m a bar owner. I own a place in Tulsa. We used to play the place when we would come through with Freak Juice, and I kind of fell into owning it. One time when we played the owner just asked me if I knew anyone who wanted to buy a bar. I told him he could sell it to me. [Laughs] And when I asked how much, I was curious to know how much he wanted to sell it for … [Laughs]

You know Oklahoma has the cheapest cost of living in the entire country? And when he told me how much he wanted I was just blown away. It was cheaper than my car! [Laughs] So I was like, “Hey man, let’s do it! How hard could it be?” Boy was I in for a lesson. Running a bar is the hardest thing I ever did in my life. It’s crazy!

So the first year, before the pandemic, we were starting to do really well, and then, we got hit like everybody else. So, we have just been trying to keep people safe, encourage masks, sanitize the place, do live streams, and just try to get creative, you know. So I’ve had to be in contact with people, but I try to stay safe and keep them safe too. And keep the business afloat, the best I can.

Something I was curious about is the way you talk about your music. You refer to the music as “juice.” When did you start referring to music in this way?
Well, our bodies are mostly made of water, and music needs to flow like that. When I was coming up in L.A., I was hanging around a set of session guitarists, like Mike Landau and his brother who played in my band, and we just got around to calling each other’s juice makers, makers of the juice. So that’s how that whole thing came about. And when I started this band, I thought of Freak Juice. Because we’re going to do whatever we want! We’re just going to freak out! We’re not robotic people, so I don’t think our music should be either.

The music has to match the vibe of the people making it.
Absolutely! Freaks are people who don’t follow the norm. Who don’t care what people think and march to their own beat. And that’s what we’re trying to do. We want to play what we’re feeling.

Yeah, and there is a blend of stuff you’re doing on the record. There is a strong rock influence, which is maybe something that people wouldn’t expect from you, knowing you as funk musician.
I like to tell the story about when I was younger, how on the radio in Detroit, there was Stevie wonder, Rush, Led Zeppelin, and The Isley Brothers, all on the same station. I remember that. And so, those are my influences. I have strong rock influences as well as R’n’ B influences. But, I have made my living mostly playing session and touring with Morris Day for the last 25 years, but other artists as well.

But all mainly on the R ’n’ B circuit. I got a chance to play with Fishbone, which is a rock and metal outfit a few years back. That was big fun for me. So when I would come off the road, I want a project where I can play some of my other influences because I was making a living doing a specific genre, and I like to do more than one thing. I wanted to be as creative possible and not really care where it fit, as long as it was good. I just want to have a good time with Freak Juice and play the kinds of things that I grew up on.

Freak Juice

All photos courtesy of Tori Ruffin and Mixtape Media.

Get a copy of They Call Us Juice from Horton Records here.

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