Owuor Arunga is the trumpeter on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s platinum selling album, The Heist. He studied Jazz at The New School is New York City and has played with and learned from some of the very best in Jazz music. Even though he has found huge success with Macklemore, he believes life is an endless learning process and the journey never really stops. Mechanical Dummy sat down with the Owuor to learn about what he contributed to Macklemore’s music, and what it’s been like since “Thrift Shop” propelled his crew to some of the most successful in popular music right now.
Words by N. Sella
Mechanical Dummy: Who are you and what do you create?
Owuor Arunga: I’m Owuor Arunga. I was born in Kenya. I’m a citizen of Earth and my goal is to link with people who have messages. To me music is about the message and what I do is I try to make the world a better place through music. It’s about the global stage, I think of people like Jackie Robinson, MLK, Malcolm X; people who changed the world forever. The forefathers. I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors. This is bigger than me. I’m a small part, but I know that I have the power and abilities to add one stone in the wall in this circle of life and make Earth a better place for all. That’s what I try to do everyday, make it a better place for everybody. That’s what I feel like the message my music is connected with. With Macklemore, with everybody I rock with.
MD: Do you have a creative role in their music (Macklemore)?
OA: Yeah, everything that has to do with trumpet. If you listen to the album, we all collaborate; it’s a collaborative effort. I’m probably the most trained musician in the crew, so they always consult me when it comes to translating it to performance and all that. We’re definitely creative basketballs, they bounce off of me and I bounce off of them. It’ the point where they can say ‘that shits wack’ and you’re cool with it, and I can say ‘that shits wack’ and they’re cool with it.
MD: How far back do those connections go?
OA: We went to high school together. We used to be those cats that would go shopping for kicks, and return the kicks the next day and get some new ones, and rock those to school and the next day return those. Keep doing that shit and keep coming to school with fresh kicks. He was one of the bad kids and I was one of the band kids, the band room was right next to the street where all the bad kids used to smoke weed and drink and skip class and shit. So I would come outside everyday and my best friend was a bad kid and a band kid too. So through him we started kicking it everyday. Then after high school I moved to New York for a few years and went to New School. I came back and we met at a Herbie Hancock concert, we both were there and exchanged numbers and reconnected that way. He was going through some shit in his life were he was getting sober and I had just gotten divorced. So our conversation was on some real shit. Ever since then we’ve been on a similar page trying to start over. It’s been a mutual growth process.
MD: So you were studying musical composition at the New School?
OA: Yeah, I studied with like all my fucking heroes. Reggie Workman who is John Coltrane’s bass player. Olu Dara, who is Nas’ pops. I literally studied with every master in the game, everybody. Chico Hamilton. Fools that played with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker the drummer. Those cats took me under their wings and I was like an apprentice to. They brought me to the rehearsals and their bands, they showed me how cats really do this, practice everyday. It’s a monastic discipline; it’s not like ‘I’m expressing myself’ nah you got to master your instrument to express anything. The more you know the tool the more you get to express what’s inside and what you can do artistically. They really showed me that side of the game and you have to put in work. They just pointed me in the right direction. Before that I was just doing middle school jazz bands and high school jazz bands, shit like that. I went to the best high school in the world for jazz; they are the most winning jazz school. So I always had a good music background but going to New York was eye opening and got rid of that feeling of being intimated by any musical situation, after doing that shit you don’t feel like you’re out of your element.
MD: When did you get into Jazz and appreciate it as a fan?
OA: Man, I was born in Kenya so they used to have these beer commercials and they had these hella seductive commercials and this dude used to come on and play a trumpet and this shit was so soft and so smooth, I was like ‘that’s the shit I wanna do.’ So I moved to the states, my mom is from the states, so I was staying with my grandparents and they had a trumpet in the basement and I started playing it and then come to find out you can study this shit in school. So I was like ‘not only do I got the instrument but I can study this shit in class!’ So I had to jump on that real quick and ever since I moved to the states I’ve been playing, I was ten years old. Ever since I got here that was the first thing I started doing.
MD: Do you have solo work you are working on or are you just rolling with Macklemore and his movement right now?
OA: Man, we are so busy dog. We are so busy; we got 200 plus shows this year. So I’ve been formulating some stuff in my head and people I want to get up with and put some shit together but right now you have to really focus on all these shows, especially as a trumpet player. It’s very demanding. I’m meditating a lot and writing a lot and trying to build that reserve of experiences to put back in our next full-length album, to put back into my personal shit and whatever I do when I get back to my city. I’m really just trying to be in the moment right now. Everyday I probably do at least 3-4 pages of free writing and just staying on that subconscious level of gratitude where you just appreciate this shit. “Can’t Hold Us” is going crazy right now and that’s crazy, I recorded a lot on that song. We are about to drop a video and do some stuff with that. “Thrift Shop” going 5x times platinum, you think about it, all the homies is like ‘whoa, whoa, wait a minute.’ It kind of fucks with your head, fools are rolling you around in limos and all sorts of surreal shit. So, writing and chilling out and realizing the journey you’re on, that got you here, is what’s going to get you to the next point of growth. That’s my personal epiphany, I was drinking too much and getting way too turnt up. I was killing myself really being lost; I achieved everything I sent out to, ‘fuck’ the only thing I don’t have now is a Grammy. That’s the only thing out of my goals I haven’t done. When that happens you got to calm yourself down and get back to the process. Just realize that’s where everything lies.
MD: Can you pinpoint the moment when you guys changed something around and the whole movement started or was it just something that happened?
OA: We are just constantly working and what I feel like was the turnaround out of that culture of just continuously working was, I realized we started to get better at what we did. Like Ryan started making better music videos, his concept of arrangement got better, Ben’s (Macklemore) flow and style was getting better, and as a writer and MC, and he was challenging himself in more ways. He was exploring more shit. Everybody out of having that much output and so much stuff constantly, everybody was always on it; we don’t got no day jobs. It just got to a point where we went from brown belt to black belt. And plus going around the country, we did the national tour, then we did it again and a third time. All those tours sold out. Selling out those shows to us meant we made it.
MD: What’s pushing you forward now and what do you want to achieve?
OA: The constant process of learning. It’s really infinite and really limitless. You really realize it’s limitless. There is so much you don’t know about yourself and that’s where I’m trying to go. I’m trying to go where I don’t know, outside my box and constantly challenging yourself to go beyond. Constantly trying to get to that point where you are filling in more and more blanks. You never finalize that and that’s what’s beautiful, you never end the journey, you keep on going.
MD: What advice would you give to a Young Genius?
OA: There’s this book called The Artist’s Way written by Julia Cameron and it’s a 12-step process for blocked artists. The premise of the book is you write everyday; you just constantly write and stay writing. You write everyday and go to a show or park by yourself. The whole concept is you put out and you put back in. It’s also getting in touch with your inner child, a lot about being creative is wonder, imagination, dreaming, visual and playing. It’s not work it’s playing. The book kind of brings it back to that. For me and a lot of my peers that book has been a pivotal read. That book is incredible. There’s this other book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. Basically he says talent is born, but it isn’t what you’re born with, you really gotta put in the hours and time. Anybody who puts in that time, anybody can master anything, you just have to be willing to put in that work. It made it finite. There was no mystery to it, the way he broke it down it was like a science. If you put your time in, your gonna get out of that. The Artist’s Way makes you think of it more not like a job but an organic process. It makes it beautiful and you also need that element. Those books together, I always recommend, like fans that come to the shows if I give them one take away its get those two books. I just like books. I can show someone the way but you can’t do the work for them. You can give them the hints.