Freakjuice’s Tori Ruffin Talks Crafting Hard Rock Fusion Music and Filming ‘Coming To America 2’ (INTERVIEW)

Tori Ruffin has been a lifelong musician working with a plethora of industry giants over the years, from Prince to Dr. Dre and many more, and usually tours with Morris Day and the Time as a guitarist, as well as with Fishbone. However, his labor of love for many years out of his current home base of Tulsa has been his own rock band, Freakjuice, who released a new album, They Call Us Juice in late 2020 via Horton Records. Before the onset of the pandemic, Ruffin also filmed a reprise of his role in the band Sexual Chocolate in Coming to America 2, Eddie Murphy’s much-anticipated sequel to the classic comedy, which is set to arrive on Amazon Prime on March 5th

Ruffin recently published a thought-provoking essay with Atwood Magazine, titled “Electric Purgatory” about the lack of equal opportunity given to Black guitarists by record labels and music media, and we spoke about his essay, as well as about writing and recording They Call Us Juice, filming Coming to America and Coming to America 2, and his personal experiences creating and performing Hard Rock music fused with other traditions. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: It’s been a few years since your previous album with Freakjuice, so it’s a pretty big deal that you released a new one in late 2020. What’s the usual way of working on songs and albums for Freakjuice?

Tori Ruffin: Freakjuice has always been independent and it’s been my labor of love for years. We’ve never had any support from a label up until now, with Horton Records, and they helped facilitate the completion of They Call Us Juice. It’s just been a passion of mine. Between touring with Morris Day and others, when I’d get off the road, I’d play with Freakjuice and try to put together some music. It has been quite a while since the last one, due to touring, and the passing of Prince, and everyday life.

If there was any silver lining, when the pandemic hit, we found ourselves with plenty of time, so I took the opportunity. Horton had actually approached me before the pandemic hit, but afterwards, I brought it home. I had started working on it already and had quite a bit recorded at that time. It was serendipitous how it worked out. 

HMS: I guess a lot of friends and colleagues were at home to collaborate with, too, rather than on the road.

TR: Exactly. I have a number of buddies on this record from Los Angeles, where I’m originally from. With internet and technology, we could send tracks over the internet, and have them sent back to me. We have some really great guests on the record, who also happen to be my friends, so that worked out. 

HMS: That’s awesome that you figured out how to collaborate at a distance. Does each song have a different recording history?

TR: I would say that the heavier things, about 7 or 8 tracks, were recorded in a studio in the same day in terms of basic tracks, though not the vocals. The basic tracks were done at Black Box Studios, then I brought them to my home studio and did some extra guitars. The majority of the record was cut in that one day. Over the years, I started building on those tracks. It may have been three years.

HMS: I’m not that surprised to hear that because these are songs with really substantial layers to them. These are really orchestrated. 

TR: The songs were written quite a few years ago and a lot of the parts were done like a garage band in someone’s garage. I had the basic structure, then I got with my guys – Christian Mason, Stanley Fary – and we crafted all the nuances. We hammered those out in a garage, like the old days, which was cool.

HMS: Have these songs been performed live by the band?

TR: Yes, we were able to perform a lot of these live before we cut, and that’s why I think we were able to capture the essence of the band, which is hard to do. This one really does feel like Freakjuice even more than the other ones because we have been able to play the songs live. I still feel like a record is a record, and live is live, but this is the closest to what you’ll get in terms of how the band is live.

HMS: Did playing them live first impact the way in which you recorded them and your decisions?

TR: Totally. Oddly enough, we pretty much stuck to the same arrangements. There’s a Youtube video of the song “Better” and that was literally, the second or third day after we put it together in the garage. You can tell there are slightly different lyrics now, but the meat of the tune kind of remains the same. I think the songs stand the test of time. The heavier ones definitely do because I think it’s subject matters that we’ve been dealing with a long time. Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed much, so it’s still relevant. 

HMS: That’s what’s surprising about hearing how long you’ve been working on these songs, because they’ve never been so relevant.

TR: Right! That was surprising for me, too, and all this stuff was happening right at the time we put it out. It’s just one of those things that we have to keep speaking about until something changes, and hopefully someday it won’t be relevant anymore in terms of the subject matter. We hope they stand the test of time in terms of connecting with people, but I hope that, regarding injustice, we’re in a different place and a different world eventually. But we have to be hopeful and positive.

HMS: I was going to say, “Hopefully you don’t have to ever sing about Donald Trump again, eventually!”

TR: Even today, when I watched the news, I said, “I thought we were done with this guy. I don’t want to hear about his lawsuits.” I’m so relieved not to have to listen to that nonsense every day. It was four years of hell. It was like a fifth grader was running the country.

HMS: It was like psychological trauma having to be subjected that. While we’re talking about live performance, I noticed that you were running a music venue. How has that been affected?

TR: We’ve been fortunate to be able to sustain the bar, The Juicemaker Lounge. We’ve been able to keep everyone safe and take all the precautions we can. We do have some live shows, but the live music crowds are pretty cautious. The DJ, Hip-Hop crowd has been coming out. We’ve been able to stay open and we’ve put in a little kitchen, which is helping. We’ve been lucky. We’re hanging on.

HMS: Is it odd for you not to be on a touring schedule right now?

TR: It’s life-changing. I’ve been on the road for thirty years. Now that I’m a little older, I didn’t realize the rest that I really needed. When in your 20s or even 30s, hopping on a plane and staying in luxury hotels is no big deal. When you get a little older, it starts to wear on you, and I didn’t realize it until I was able to rest. I’m still looking forward to getting back to work, though, I miss it. I miss the crowd interaction and I took a lot of things for granted. Just having people. As an artist, you need that feedback. You realize how grateful you are for the little things, like human contact, even just hanging out with your friends.

HMS: Regarding Coming to America and Coming to America 2, a long time has passed between those two films, too. Were you able to work on the new film before the pandemic?

TR: It was filmed before Covid last December, so we were able to get in there, and things were pretty much normal. The first film’s shoot took two days, but this one only took one day.

HMS: I’m sure that filmmaking has seen some changes between the making of the two films. How was your experience similar or different this time around?

TR: Well, we were thirty years younger, both Eddie and I. It was a lot different. Back then, Eddie [Murphy] was cracking more jokes and goofing around with the band. This was a little more subdued version of Eddie. While he was having fun, and it was a great atmosphere, it was a little more business-like. He had his kids with him. He was hilarious, and I believe it’s going to be a great scene, and from what I could see, the scene is just as funny, if not funnier than before. But there was a little bit more mature atmosphere this time around. Eddie knew more what he wanted to do, and he did it. It was cool, though.

HMS: Were you surprised when you heard that there was going to be another film and you were asked to be in it?

TR: I was, because we were one of the last groups of people to get the call. We heard that there was going to be a film, but we hadn’t gotten the call, so we wondered if they were going to get some younger guys! But it turned out that they had been looking for us, and Eddie wanted all the original cast and members. We got the call kind of last minute, and everybody was available, except the bass player, who was in Japan. Everyone is a very accomplished musician, believe it or not. The sax player plays with The Stones and has his own band. Melvin Davis is a huge guy in Jazz and was over in Japan at the time, so he wasn’t able to make it. All the original members of Sexual Chocolate were able to make it.

HMS: Filming scenes for the new film, did you have to rehearse together ahead of time, like for a concert?

TR: On the first film, we were given a song that we needed to learn ahead of time, since we’d be playing it. We rehearsed it really well, and got it all shiny, and it was tight. Then, we got in there to start recording, and after the first four bars, the Producer cries, “Halt! What are you guys doing? I need you to sound like the worst lounge band in America. Sax player, barely put some horns in. Guitar player, miss some notes! We don’t want you sounding good on this.” That’s what Sexual Chocolate was for. 

On the second one, the track was pre-recorded, so we pantomimed on it, but we sang the hook. It was two different scenarios.

HMS: It’s probably even harder than it sounds to try to sound bad when you’re a group of accomplished players. There are so many ways to be bad, how do you choose? 

TR: Evidently, we did a good job, because people think it’s funny. I guess we’re good at that.

HMS: What do you think of the ways in which musicians are presented in TV and film? Do you think it’s important to try to be realistic?

TR: When they are doing documentaries, like on Miles [Davis], or [Jimi] Hendrix, with someone playing the guitar, it’s definitely painful to watch, as a musician, if someone is not even close. But in a comedy, that’s not a big deal to me. But like that film on Ike and Tina Turner, even though Laurence Fishburne’s performance was good, and he’s a great actor, that was a little painful to watch.

HMS: The biopics get into dangerous territory if they can’t make musical performances look right. 

TR: There are plenty of people who are decent at playing and acting, but I guess they choose the acting over playing. The playing should be at least 60-40, not 90-10, which is what it looks like to me. I’m not saying it’s easy by any means, but there’s got to be a way. When Jamie Foxx does it, he’s an accomplished piano player, so he looks great. But there’s got to be other people in town who can play instruments. Or, if they can lose weight and change their bodies in six months for a part, they can definitely learn instruments.

HMS: That’s a really great point! Music bootcamp sounds good. By the way, I really, really enjoyed the essay that you published recently in Atwood Magazine, “Electric Purgatory”, with a great title. 

TR: Thank you. I was asked to write something for Black History Month and decided to focus on being underrepresented in the music industry or overlooked. As the essay says, I know so many gifted players who make a living in the business but don’t get any recognition whatsoever. I wanted to bring awareness to that. This is a time when everyone is more receptive to social justice and equal opportunity. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen so much support for it, so I wanted to have a conversation about this and make people aware. A lot of artists are not even aware that this is how musicians are feeling. 

HMS: The essay is really well put together because it has a good overview, but within the essay, you get really specific, too, focusing in on Black guitarists. 

TR: And you can do the same for Black bassists. Of course, some people have had accolades, but in terms of opportunities, it’s a shame that people haven’t been given their just due. It’s really just about having the same opportunities and the support that the record companies and media don’t give as much to Black artists. 

HMS: It’s a kind of easy blindness. It’s laziness. 

TR: It is. I was working with Dr. Dre, and before Freakjuice, I had a band called Civil Rights, and he wanted to do a Black Rock project really badly. I can remember him saying this to me directly, “The only reason why none of this music has ever really blown up is because no one ever really spends any money behind it. They just kind of throw it out there.” I thought, “Man, that’s it right there. You’re not given the same financial opportunities and exposure.” But as I mention in that essay, we were told, “We’ve got our quota. We’ve got enough Black Rock bands.” I wonder if any white bands have ever been told that. Can you imagine being told that?

HMS: It’s absolutely horrendous. As a fan of Hard Rock and Metal music, I come across a lot of very diverse younger and less established artists, and they just don’t get the same media attention on the whole. 

TR: I’m glad that things are getting more diverse and people are stepping outside the box, because music is universal, and it shouldn’t be delegated to these few to put this music out. It should be based on merit and given a chance. 

HMS: This overlaps somewhat with genre expectations. This new album has a tremendous fusion of genres, all blended with Rock. 

TR: People tend to recognize me from R&B and Soul, and working with Prince, but I come from a time when everything was on the radio at once, from Led Zeppelin, to Elton John, to Stevie Wonder, to Rush. I have this love of Rock music. My favorite newer bands are like The Deftones. I like that heavy groove. The band is a Rock band first, and I’m glad you hear that element. Then we have all those sub-genres going on. It’s like a Led Zeppelin meets Miles Davis, with some Hip-Hop, if I have to sum it up. People see a Black band and they assume it’s R&B. I know they mean well, but they don’t really get it.

HMS: It must be hard when people are trying to be nice, but they are missing the point. Is it difficult to choose to embrace so many genres when that’s not easy to categorize for streaming lists and the like? 

TR: I definitely put a few things on the records that I might not normally put on there, like “Learned it From U” and “Cookies N Cream”, which are both tributes to Prince and the whole Minneapolis scene, so that’s a departure, but everything else is right in line with what Freakjuice has been. If you come to our shows, you’re going to say, “I don’t know what just happened, but that’s a kickass Rock band!” You’re not going to say, “Man, that was great R&B!” While it is an uphill battle on the playlist front and the radio front, it’s not one live. If we’re just a successful touring band, I’m fine with that. If I get to do what I love to do, that’s a win for me. 

I put together records so I can enjoy and have a good time when I’m playing with my buddies and my friends. I’d like give these guys some love: Stanley Fary on the drums, Charlie Redd on the bass, Chris Simpson on vocals and rap, who’s my main writer. Then I have a young guy, Christian Mason in LA, who’s on the majority of the record playing bass and helped me write some things on there. Those are the main guys. They are on the album and the first three have been with me from the beginning and laboring on this quest to make juice for the world. 

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