As a religion major at Whitman, he was Josh Karp '05. Now, he's known as Budo—a successful musician and producer for artists including Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. Before last week's sold-out show with Macklemore in Walla Walla, Karp—or is that Budo?—talked to us about the differences between the studio and the stage, and how his time at Whitman has influenced his craft.
When you're performing or recording, you go by the name Budo. Where did that come from?
That's a great question. So I panicked, probably 12 years ago. I was putting out a record with Macklemore—putting out a couple of records around the same time frame—and I realized it's rap music, [and I] needed a superhero alter ego. And "Budo" was the name of my favorite Miles Davis song, so I chose that. Good four-letter word, seemed to roll off the tongue-and it stuck.
You've written with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and produced some tracks on their new record, This Unruly Mess I've Made. How did you first meet?
It goes back to my Whitman days. I met Ben [Haggerty, aka Macklemore] through another guy who went to Whitman who grew up with Ben. I was making music here and working on a few projects. His friend put me in touch with him to see if we might be able to make some music together. That was probably my sophomore/junior year here. We ended up connecting really well, and I produced the majority of his first record, The Language of My World, which came out 11 years ago.
Some of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' work could be seen as "protest music." Is that something you're attracted to as an artist and producer?
Very much so. I think that music has immense power as a tool of human coalescence and of change, and it's something universal that resonates with people on a very foundational level and also has the potential to resonate with people on an intellectual and societal level. It's been really powerful traveling the world with these people and getting in front of audiences literally across the world—large, large groups of people—and seeing an attraction to ideas of community and genuine expressions of love and peace and friendship.
That must be a powerful experience.
It's a really powerful thing to see people gather around. Especially in times of feeling like the world is a little bit fragile, you can get a little bit of power from seeing these collections of people surrounding good things. Those things bring me to tears at times.
What's it like to be back in Walla Walla?
It's amazing. I've maintained a connection to this place primarily through [Professor of Film and Media Studies] Robert Sickels. He and I have been working together since I left on these films he makes. It's a really important period of time in my life, and allowed me to become a real human being in some ways, and afforded me the intellectual and practical space to begin focusing on what's now my craft. I value this place and I value my time here immensely. It's cool to be back. It's like a time capsule.
You were a religion major at Whitman. Did you sort of fall into that? It's not exactly a direct line to the music industry.
I think in some ways, yeah. I was attracted to those ideas and those discussions and had a couple of really amazing professors who pulled me into that department. [Weyerhaeuser Professor of Biblical Literature] George Ball was one of them, and a guy named Robert Morrison, [former assistant professor of religion]... He was phenomenal. [Senior Adjunct Assistant Professor of Religion] Rogers Miles. [Professor of Religion] Walt Wyman was great too. It was sort of my lens to try to understand humans a bit and understand myself.
It hasn't been of any specific practical application, but it's also a liberal arts degree. The skills I gained writing and reading and critically thinking—it's all real. Spending four years in a protected environment, where you're able to encounter ideas from all manner of perspectives is unbelievably valuable. It's easy to devalue it because you can't walk out of here and get a religion job. But it's made my brain what it is. And I think that's invaluable.
Is that religion lens something you still use?
Absolutely, and I think the ability to synthesize multiple perspectives and to work to exercise empathy and see things through other people's eyes and really analyze those perspectives and legitimize those perspectives—that's applicable to every part of anybody's life.
Performing music that's very much "studio-created" must be difficult. How do you approach translating Macklemore's music to a performance venue?
It's a task, yeah. You get to reimagine things. What you'll see tonight is supposed to be a different experience. You're not going to listen to a CD on stage. I think that there are certain people and certain types of music that are supposed to be that way, but there's an opportunity to convey a certain type of energy in a live setting that doesn't exist at all on a record, and conversely, there's an opportunity on a record to convey nuance and dynamics and things that just don't exist in live settings. I think they both complement one another really beautifully, but they're not the same thing. Performing for me is much less of a creative process than being in the studio, and much more about extroversion. It's like an exchange of energy. Ultimately, what ends up on a CD or MP3 is exactly what you wanted it to be. It's perfect in some capacity. And a live show is absolutely not.
You've worked with a lot of artists from Washington State. Do you have a fondness for or connection to the region?
It's a community, and like any place, there's just a mechanical element to it: those are the people I grew up making music with and that I know the best, and the people that I'm most likely to be connected to. But also there was a period of time when I was first working with Macklemore from 2003 to 2007 or 2008, when there was a really specific Seattle moment surrounding hip-hop in particular. There was a sound and a scene and a community, which we really had a sense of ownership over, and a feeling that you were building into something that had this potential to reach the world, but in its own way.
Ben Haggerty is the man behind Macklemore. What's he really like?
He's one of my best friends. He's a great, great person. It's weird watching your friends get famous. I've seen it happen in a couple of different cases and I think it's an uncomfortable process for anybody, and I'm really proud of how he's grown through it. Not to say that it's a curse—obviously you get a lot of benefits from being a famous person—but you're living under a microscope and are, in many ways, the property of the world.
The tour is over in a few weeks. What do you do in your downtime?
It's funny, I've never ever felt like I've needed a vacation like I do right now. I generally just kind of keep going, probably to the detriment of my work. I just put my head down and work and work, and then tour, then go back in the studio, and I don't get a lot of time to recharge. But this year's been tough. We spent two years leading up to January in the studio, and that was a 20-hour day, six-day-a-week type of thing, so I'm ready. I just need to go somewhere warm and give myself permission to not do anything for a week or two.
Hear more of Josh Karp's music on his website.