Junius Bervine

Philly's hip-hop keyboard hero
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“It’s definitely challenging, but throughout my career I’ve always looked for challenges,” Junius Bervine says of his work with rap superstar Kendrick Lamar via phone from his hometown of Philadelphia, P.A. Bervine has been wearing numerous hats of late, both as an in-demand producer and as a live performer with artists such as Lamar, Common, and Pharrell Williams, for whom he is also Musical Director

“Before I started playing keyboards, I was singing and dancing,” Bervine explains. “My mother was a big influence on that, playing music by Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, and Earth, Wind & Fire. I was born in 1974, so I caught a nice era in the 1970s. It’s actually my favorite era for music of just about every genre. I started beating around on the piano early on and, eventually, I started taking private lessons. Later when I was in high school, I was always inside of the jazz and band classroom, practicing and getting my skills up. When I first heard Oscar Peterson, that’s what made me want to play. And of course, Herbie Hancock, Roy Ayers and a bunch of different musicians were big influences on me, too. During my high school years I was also introduced into the Gospel world, as well. Once I started playing in church, it opened up a lot of doors for me. I started off working on Gospel plays with David E. Talbert, and I met lots of musicians and producers.”

Bervine’s first big musical validation would come by way of his Gospel music connections, who led him toward working with R&B/soul sensation D’Angelo. “The Voodoo tour in 2000 was an experience,” Bervine says. “That was the best gig I’ve ever done in my life. Hands down. I had met many different church musicians like Tony Moore, who introduced me to James Poyser who plays for The Roots. James was my mentor, and he and Ahmir [Questlove Thompson] took me in and showed me the ropes. They had me listening and helped me open my mind to all kinds of music. Those two, along with Brian Frasier Moore, were really instrumental in my success. I also started working for James in the studio, and I got my studio chops up, working with keyboards like the Fender Rhodes, a Roland Juno-106, a Clavinet, a Wurlitzer, and other authentic instruments. I ended-up using a lot of those keyboards on my live gigs with D’Angelo, and later Common, who I started working with in 2002.”

Other artists would start calling on Bervine as well. “I played for Brian McKnight, I MD’d for Kelis, and I actually shared the stage with Prince twice, which was a musical high for me and changed my life. I’ve also toured with Floetry, the French group Les Nubians, Patti LaBelle, and N.E.R.D. Then in 2005, when Pharrell came out with his first solo record, I played with him on the Late Show with David Letterman. Pharrell was working with Ahmir, who called me for the gig. After that when Pharrell needed a band, I was asked me to put a band together. And he’s trusted me ever since then. What’s crazy is that I left the whole music scene in 2009 and moved my family to Egypt to do Biblical studies. It was a fun and interesting time. I lived there for five years, and I learned a lot of other kinds of music. When I returned in 2014, I started working with Kendrick Lamar as soon as I got back. After I ran into Pharrell in Los Angeles, who was rehearsing next door to us, he saw me and was ecstatic. He gave me my position back, and for that I’m grateful.”

Whether he’s playing arenas, or producing back home in Philadelphia, Bervine is always focused on the music at hand. “One thing that I preach to a lot of younger musicians is to think mentally about the music, not just physically” he says. “Right now, everybody can play. It’s like having crabs in a bucket. [Laughs.] But the one thing that has kept me working and successful is the mental aspect. The physical part is learning your instrument. You sit down and learn theory and scales. But for me, the mental part is bigger because you have to learn how to play different genres with different people. You can’t just do what you want to do. It takes a mental mind to hold back the physical. That’s why a lot of guys get fired. They overplay. I learned from watching James Poyser: He can do a lot, but sometimes he does nothing except make a record feel good. It’s about having good instincts, like timing, discipline, confidence and vocabulary. So once you have the physical, get with the mental!”