"All I've been doing is making music," says Eddie Murphy. "I haven't been working on films, haven't been developing movies, or any of that shit." Truth is, though he hasn't released an album for 20 years, Murphy never quit writing and recording songs – he just stopped releasing them. But now that he's "semi-retired" as an actor (as he told me in his 2011 Rolling Stone cover story), Murphy installed a recording studio in his Beverly Hills mansion and got to work. The result is "Red Light," a respectfully received throwback-reggae single guest-starring Snoop Lion, and a new album, 9, due early next year. He jumped on the phone last week for a rare interview to discuss his musical plans, which are likely to include a return to live performances, and an eventual return to stand-up, too.
People seem to like "Red Light."
Yeah, I think people had no expectations. It's always good when they have no expectations.
The reggae part's a surprise.
Yeah, it was something different. I was like, "I gotta keep grown if I'm trying something." How can I become grown and still have it be danceable and not look like I'm trying to sound like everybody else.
You actually played me some Marley on guitar the last time we spoke.
Oh yeah man. I've been a big Bob Marley fan forever. Forever. Like big huge. Bob Marley and the Beatles, that's my big, giant music influence. I can listen to them all the time. All the time.
Were you thinking Marley, specifically, for the vibe of this song?
You, know what happened is, I wrote some words and I was like, "How do you see these words and not have it be pretentious and weird and preachy?" The reggae track best suited that story the way that story is told in that song.
I think the only time we've heard you sing reggae in public before was the SNL "Kill the White People" thing.
That's a classic! [Laughs] But you know, if you look all my stuff . . . If you go back to Saturday Night Live, my stuff always has music, even a bunch of my comedy stuff – like in Shrek, the donkey is always singing. Music is always there. I always do joke stuff with it but it's always there and I always do it seriously and I stopped putting stuff out because I didn't want to look like those actors that be putting out records. It looks weird. Just putting out records. There's a strange like, "What the fuck is this thing?" And I didn't want to be part of that so I stopped putting stuff out. But my shit . . . I got so much stuff that's like so way beyond actor's singing shit, like this track "Red Light", you just listen to it and it is what it is.
It feels like a pretty legitimate song to me. If people refuse to recognize that...
Yeah, you're just hating. Just be hating. [Laughs]
Was there something specifically going on in the world that inspired the lyrics?
It's just everything. It's a bunch of . . . What's cool about the track for me is it kind of says a little a bit about everything that's going on without pointing a finger at anybody and saying, you know, "Stop this crazy shit."
You sing, "All the rebels are gone."
Yeah. And then at the end, I say "Most of the rebels are gone." It's like, might be one or two. Haven't presented themselves yet.
You have a line – "It can't be long till the military come with a knock on your door." What's that about?
That's about how crazy shit is, how long before the fucking cops show up, motherfuckers show up beating on your door. No place to run, here your karma come.
That's how you feel it is out there? You get that feeling?
Well, things are crazy, but things are really good. I ain't saying nothing that ain't been said before. Everything I'm saying has been said before. It's all just forever relevant, those things always apply to the times, the things that I'm saying.
What was the idea behind the video?
Which you mean, with the little girl walking through the neighborhood? We were trying to have some visuals that would go with what we're saying and not be too preachy or heavy-handed. The subtlety of a little girl coming up, going out of her house and going to the corner to get some ice cream and all the shit that she sees from going out of her crib, just going and coming back, it's real subtle. Really none of the big message stuff. But real subtle, easy-to-follow story. Cool track.
How did Snoop Lion get involved?
Well, I loved Snoop from ever since and when he turned into Snoop Lion, I was checking to see how he was coming. I tracked that song around the same time I started hearing about him doing Snoop Lion. And I was like "Yo, if he's Snoop Lion now, he can jump on this track, because I wanted to have a rapper on it." It was perfect. He's Snoop Lion, I got this reggae track. It was like just meant to be.
I assume he got you pretty high?
Nah. The room was already buzzing when Snoop got there. We did two tracks together. We did that song. We did actually a song that's like just a new . . . the new weed anthem. A track called "Mellow Miss Mary." It's a shame – I was working on it with Rick James before he died. I wrote the song and went to Rick and he was loving it. And Rick was supposed to be on it and Rick kicked out and I still had the track and it was like "'Ay, I'm going to take this and put Snoop on it." Snoop is like the governor of weed! [Laughs] Got him on the track. On the surface, if you listen to "Mellow Miss Mary," it sounds like a love song to this chick named Mary. But when you listen to it, it's like "Hey, man. Is Mary reefer?"
What does that one sound like?
If you took Snoop off it, if you had no rap on it, it would sound kind of like a track Sade would do. When Quincy produced Sade, that's what the track sounds like. Then we put Snoop on it, it took it to some other place. Like this smoothed-out arrangement that rap artists don't usually be rapping over stuff like this. It's like a real, sophisticated arrangement. Like almost jazzy. The smoothest shit ever. You'll hear. You'll see. And Raphael Saadiq's playing bass on it. It's just bananas.
You played me a ballad called "Sweet Candy Rose" a couple years ago. Did that make the record?
When I put my studio in, I was putting in there just for that track. And I must have tried recording that song like ten times. It never comes out right. I recorded 25-30 songs and can't get "Sweet Candy Rose." The only time that song sounds right is when I'm playing it on the guitar. But every time we try to build it up, the shit comes out wack. Something I can play live.
So you put the studio in and just got to work. What was the process like?
The tracks and stuff start falling out the sky. Because I had a studio in my house in Jersey. I sold my house in Jersey to Alicia Keys last year, so people are still making music in it. I put a studio in this house. I hadn't had a studio in here the whole time I was living here, so I had like maybe five years where I was just putting stuff on guitar, just writing stuff. Then when I put the studio in I had just a backlog of songs. So we've been nonstop since I put it up in there.
Who have you, besides Saadiq, who's been there? Who's been working there?
He just played the bass on a track and he sang on one of my tracks called "Born to Love You." We did like a duet on it. He didn't write anything, wasn't really working. I've just been working with myself and the two guys that I work with all the time. Trenten Gumbs and Ralph Hawkins, Jr., two musicians that was in my little band I had.
It's been 20 years since you released an album. How did you decide to finally put this thing out?
I had so much stuff recorded. Everything that's on the shelf, it's not a masterpiece but I got a lot of shit that's really strong stuff. I was like, "I've got enough to do a whole record here that stands up on its own." Because I didn't want to leave it at "Party All the Time." It's a good song, but I didn't want to leave it there.
How did you get past the whole idea that it's just weird for you to put out music?
I've been in this business for 35 years, and after a while, if you're an artist like a really, really long time, it stops being a performance. I'm not performing anymore. I reveal myself to the audience. I reveal myself. That's the show now. It's like here, here's me. I show you some of me. It's not a show no more. I'm like, "I don't care if you don't like it or think 'Oh, it's wack.'" It's like, hey this is me, this is a track. It's not a show. It is what it is.
Do you plan to go back to live performances? A couple years ago, you told me you might like to do a half-music, half-stand-up show.
Yeah, ultimately, when I go back to the stage, I want to be able to do everything. I want to be able to do music and comedy and all that stuff, that's what all this stuff is leading to. Like, we gonna drop this "Red Light" and I'll probably drop another single or two, and I'll probably start doing little kick-offs with my band, going around, put a band together, do little small basic shows. Get the band really hot. And then in a year or two, do music and comedy and have a show like nobody ever had before. Ultimately, that's what it hopefully all just leads to.
Do you think you'll play any of your old stuff?
We'll play "Party All the Time" and "Put Your Mouth on Me." My two hits. [Laughs]
I guess the comedy part is in the future. You're not ready to do stand-up quite yet.
Nah, that all comes together when I'm on the stage with my band, doing my little shit. You know how you go see somebody play and in between songs they be doing a chit-chat, talk shit. My shit just be much funnier, and that part will grow longer and longer . . . [Laughs]
What's the rest of the album sound like?
Everything. It's everything on there. I'm the artist when I'm doing music that I am when I'm acting. I'm everything. Just like Nutty Professor, I'm everybody at the table! Everything at the table on my record. I'm writing, producing, and it's all different types of shit. I got shit that sounds like country tracks, shit that sounds like heartland music, I got smooth ballads, I got a song that sounds like you'd play it at the strip club, called "Go Baby Go." Everything. Everything at the table.
There's talk of another Beverly Hills Cop movie – now that the TV show fell through – and there's talk that you might be in Triplets with Danny DeVito and Schwarzenegger. Anything real there?
I've had all types of talks like that. Nothing's come together yet. All things still in the talking stage. Right now, this is what's happening.
After 20 years, what was it like the moment you put "Red Light" out there?
I wasn't tripping about it. I wasn't tripping about it and I didn't have any anxiety about it, 'cause the track is hot. This shit is hot. It's real. If you don't like Eddie Murphy and you don't like reggae and you don't like Snoop Dogg, then the record's not for you. If you hate those three things together, then the record's not for you. But if you're feeling any of them, then it's a hot track.