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How Kamasi Washington Hid a Secret Record in ‘Heaven and Earth’

The saxophonist and his team on stashing surprise disc ‘The Choice’ in his new album package, and keeping it all hush-hush

Saxophonist Kamasi Washington talks stashing surprise album 'The Choice' inside his new 'Heaven and Earth' opus.

Anyone buying Kamasi Washington‘s latest album, Heaven and Earth, expecting four LPs’ worth of shimmering spiritual jazz was in for a surprise: There was actually a fifth.

Sealed inside a perforated pocket in the center of the package is The Choice, an unannounced record (or, on smaller racks, a CD) featuring 38 additional minutes of Washington, a more smoothed-out affair including covers of songs made famous by the Shirelles (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”) and the Five Stairsteps (“O-o-h Child”). To access it, fans actually have to slice open the package.

“The whole idea of the record to me is a record of empowerment,” says Washington of Heaven and Earth — even without The Choice, an undertaking that was over two hours long. “We do have the power to kind of make this world what we want it to be. But we have to just choose to do it ourselves and not wait for someone else. … It was in there, it’s in the music without The Choice, but I just wanted to kind of reiterate it with [the hidden record] aspect of it.”

“Kamasi had the idea that he wanted to pretty much hide The Choice,” says Phil Lee, creative director of Young Turks-adjacent label XL Recordings. “So that was kind of the brief: How do we hide a piece of vinyl, a CD and ultimately some digital content as well?”

Washington says he envisioned this album as a three-part suite early on. He knew he wanted to have Heaven and Earth and then something that was kind of in between them: “So, for a long time The Choice was called In Between,” he says with a laugh.

The team had a few challenges beyond hiding it well. It had to be cost-effective and easy to make. They had to keep it hush-hush. Washington’s hands were full: He was in the middle of touring and dealing with a very intense, months-long mixing process with Russ Elevado. He was also hoping to visit the salt flats of Bolivia for the album cover concept because, says Washington, “the ground reflects the sky because it’s such really flat surface.” On the go, Washington shared scribbles and ideas for the packaging with the label over Skype or sent videos.

“I was, like, trying to bust out my arts-and-crafts skills to try to make the homemade version,” says Washington. “My original idea was that it would be like a box and you have two albums in it, but then there’d be another box in between those two albums, and you’d have to figure out how to get into that box. Apparently gluing a box into a box is not as easy as one might think.”

“We very consciously didn’t want it to be a deluxe item,” says Lee. “We could have easily put this in a box. But obviously boxes as a rule of thumb are more expensive. We definitely didn’t want it to feel like it was a luxury item. Hopefully we kept the price competitive for a four-piece vinyl. … Hopefully people felt that they were getting a little treat.

“Manufacturing plants would … go off for, sometimes days [or] weeks and test this on our behalf,” Lee continues. “So it was definitely a long drawn-out process. We had multiple samples that we were testing. And, again, Kamasi’s on the road, so we’re shipping these around the world or trying to do it via Skype. But ultimately it was the testing and testing and testing that got us to the point where we felt that the package was true to the original concept and I guess being able to be executed on a practical level.”

The finished vinyl package features The Choice sandwiched between two gatefold sleeves holding the other four LPs: the result of an assembly process that is part manufactured, part handmade. The only hint of the bonus album’s presence is a little perforation at the top.

“We definitely didn’t want people to destroy [the packaging] but we definitely felt that … there was … action needed,” says Lee.

“You know, that saying,” says Washington, “if you wanna make an omelette, you gotta break a few eggs.”

With the design settled, the only thing left was to do keep it like a secret.

“We did have a few questions from people going, ‘Wow, that seems a little bit expensive for four pieces of vinyl and two CDs,'” says Lee. “So, yeah, that was a tricky time. It would have been easy for us to kind of let on and let people you know, ‘Yeah, don’t you worry, you’re getting a little surprise.’ But we held our nerve.

“In an ideal world people would take this home and potentially discover it days, weeks or months later,” he continues. “Obviously with the beauty of the Internet these days, we knew that once someone had done it, then everyone would know.”

Indeed, social media was buzzing about it on the day of release. Some people on Twitter caught on fairly quickly, and blog posts from the Vinyl Factory, Exclaim! and Noisey soon followed. On their day-of-release Best New Music review, Pitchfork provided a parenthetical: “According to Discogs, a surprise third part, The Choice, comes as a CD tucked away in the album’s packaging; it wasn’t provided to reviewers, but it’s reported to contain five tracks — almost 40 minutes of additional music.” Eventually they provided a second review exclusively of The Choice.

“My thought process was it was gonna be a few weeks before people would start to, like, feel this thing in there and go, like, ‘I wonder if there is something in there,'” says Washington .”I was actually surprised. Like, I don’t see how … because I wouldn’t have known. I thought we did pretty good job of hiding it but I guess apparently not.”

Maybe he can hide it better next time?

“Yeah, hide it in their house,” jokes Washington. “Like, you buy the record, somebody comes in the house and hides the record in your closet or something.”

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