Keyboardist, programmer and producer Eugene “Man-Man” Roberts has toured with Hip-hop royalty like Kanye West and Snoop Dogg. Since 2008, Roberts has been pop icon John Legend's music director. In the debut installment of our new series THE PRO FILE, Roberts talks about the tech and tenacity that put him where he is today.
Tell us about your musical background.
I was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA. I started out as a drummer, growing-up and playing in church. As I got more into music, I wanted to find ways to make the music change, but I couldn’t explain to the people I was playing with what direction I wanted it to take. I thought to myself, “I should at least learn what these notes are!” I wanted to learn the number system of how chords related to each other, and also what each note on the keyboard was. There were also times I would be somewhere and the keyboard player would be late or wouldn’t show-up at all. I had been fooling-around learning songs, but then I really started taking it seriously. I didn’t want to be a pianist or an organ player, really. I wanted to be a keyboard player, because I was always interested in creating different sounds. From there, I started getting really tech-savvy.
When you were coming-up as a musician, what kinds of things were you listening to and getting inspired by?
When I was around 15 years-old, I started listening to a lot of Weather Report, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. At the same time, I was listening to a lot of Hip-hop like J Dilla, A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes. My palette of music has always been really wide, even to this day. I listen to things like Fela [Kuti], Bootsy Collins and Parliament [Funkadelic]. Those are all different genres of music, but they also bring different sounds and textures into the music. Some of the first keyboards I used when I started learning and listening to music were the Roland D-5 and the Roland JX-8P. I would try to duplicate the sounds I was hearing on records with those keyboards. Soon, I was getting heavy into the tech side of things, programming and learning about MIDI, triggering and sampling. In my high school, there was a music room with a Roland XP-80. I learned about sequencing on that keyboard. It was actually the first keyboard I bought, and I still take one out on tour every now and then. I love it.
How did your association with John Legend begin?
I started gigging around Philadelphia and meeting other musicians. Around 2005, a good friend of mine was playing bass with John Legend, and I got the call to be the drum tech and stage manager. Later, when they heard I was actually a keyboard player, I was offered a spot in the band. My first gig with John Legend was actually the NBA All-Star Game in Houston, Texas. I was in John’s band from 2006-2008. Then in 2008 I went on-tour with Kanye West, and John came to one of our shows. We sat down and talked about his vision for the band and from that point on, I became his Music Director.
What kinds of gear are you using on-tour these days?
Since I started in the industry, I’ve always used Roland gear. I’ve played with Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, J. Cole, Wiz Khalifa, Teddy Riley and others. With Kanye, I played only talk box and vocoder! Every gig calls for something different. Every Hip-hop and pop album from 2008 until now has had kind of Roland sound on them. Juno-106’s and Fantoms got big. I’m an advocate for using current gear because I want people to be on top of the technology. I'm also working with Roland these days on their Keyboard Rigs Selector Tool, which helps explain to people what each piece of gear can really do.
You sound like you’re not a big fan of vintage gear.
I’m a big fan of vintage gear, but I’m a bigger fan of consistency. I’ve been with John Legend for a very long time. We’ve used everything from vintage sounds to big synths and programming, and back. I try to keep my rigs as consistent as possible so that no matter what gig I’m on, I know that if I at least have two pieces I can pull-off anything. For instance, I have a Roland VR-700 combo organ that I’ve played for people like Cory Henry, and everyone who has heard it has said “That sounds incredible!” So, it’s really about how you tweak your sounds. I had a Hammond B3 organ on the road for a while, but when you’re flying, vintage gear is challenging. You might get a good Fender Rhodes, or you might not. It’s so up and down it’s scary!
If someone walked into your home studio, what would they see?
They would see Guitar Center! [Laughs.] I literally have 17 keyboards set-up that are all patched-in and going through a MOTU MIDI Timepiece. I have a little bit of everything, from early 1980’s keyboards to modern ones. I have some things that I don’t bring out of my house anymore – like my Juno-60 and Juno-106, but I also have a Wurlitzer, a Hammond B3 and a Rhodes. I also keep a lot of gear at a rehearsal and backline company that I’m a partner in. We have 30,000 square feet where we do tour production rehearsals and shoot movies and commercials.
What modern keyboards are you using of late?
I’ve been working with Roland for around 10 years – since I started with John Legend. I’ve noticed how over the years they’ve paid a lot of attention to detail, and how they've been able to make sounds match from era to era. Take something like their new System-8, which has a virtual Juno-106 and Jupiter-8 in it. It sounds really close to those original keyboards, with its virtual analog technology. It makes you think, “Hey, I can protect my vintage gear!” They sound good, they’re consistent, and they’re convenient to tour with.
You don’t travel with a lot of your own gear?
It depends on the gig. With John, we fly a pallet of gear to every show. That has things like my playback rack, my combo organ, and my System-8. I’m using a Roland Fantom-G8. I haven’t fully switched-over to the RD-2000 as my main keyboard yet, as my Integra-7 [module] communicates with the G8. I’ve been using the same G8 with John since around 2009. It has almost a “play” in it now like a vintage Rhodes. The RD-2000 feels more like a piano to me, and I love that. I also like to “cross-hybrid” my keyboard rigs as well – sometimes I’ll have a V-synth rack MIDI’d to a Fantom. Or vice versa. I love the Jupiter-80 as well. I also always travel with computers. I even helped in the design of Apple MainStage 2.
If you showed up on a gig with John Legend and the backline you requested wasn’t available, what one keyboard could you make it through the show with?
I could probably do it all on a Fantom-G8, because it has all the sounds and outputs that I need. I have a wide palette of sounds, and I’m always ready. We’ve done shows where something happened with the bass player right before we went on-stage. What do I have to do? I have to play synth bass for the gig, because John still wants to perform. You have to always be prepared for anything!
Is that what you think the secret to your success is? Being prepared for whatever is thrown at you?
Yeah. I’m prepared for any situation, plus I have a tech background and a musical one. So I see things from both sides.