The Unlikely Takeover of BADBADNOTGOOD
[One of the newer additions to my own musical interests is the massive universe of jazz. And just as exciting as becoming increasingly intimate with the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, is discovering that there is a great deal of thrilling new jazz being made today. Along with the likes of GoGo Penguin and Kamasi Washington, one of my favorite contemporary acts is the hip-hop-inspired Canadian trio, BADBADNOTGOOD.
Though my somewhat naive interview with them reveals my own lack of expertise in jazz, I felt it was an appropriate approach to help introduce others into a rich but intimidating territory of music that many never dig into simply because they don’t know where to start.
Side note: this piece also birthed one of my favorite playlists I’ve ever made.]
BADBADNOTGOOD is the completion of a circle.
Hip-hop mythology is chock-full of stories of young talents rising to the top from unlikely places, but a Canadian experimental jazz trio is about as far away from the usual narrative as it usually gets.
Just three years ago, Matthew Tavares (keys), Chester Hansen (bass) and Alexander Sowinski (drums) were near strangers studying music at Humber College, a polytechnic university in Toronto.
“We were running into each other in the hallways. We all liked rap music, and one day we got a practice room at school and jammed a bunch of random songs together,” tells Tavares. “At one point we decided to play some hip-hop music because we liked doing that more than being a jazz band. That was the breaking point.”
Their early experiments included jazzified instrumentals of various songs by the Odd Future collective (called the Odd Future Sessions) and a cover of Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade.”
Though their school faculty was none-too-impressed when they showed off their newfound fusion, the web reacted differently and the video went viral.
“All we did was post a video and the whole internet checked it out,” says Hansen. “After that we dropped out of school to focus on music. It’s been quite a crazy journey since.”
In short time BADBADNOTGOOD found themselves collaborating with the likes of Tyler, The Creator, Frank Ocean and MF DOOM, as well as non-hip-hop acts — as with their popular reinterpretation of Future Islands’ “Seasons Change (Waiting on You).”
Most recently the group released Sour Soul, a full-length collaboration with Wu-Tang Clan stalwart Ghostface Killah.
As the third LP in a run of album where Ghostface has rapped over a live band – he paired with film composer Adrian Younge on 2013’s Twelve Reasons to Die and Brooklyn funk band the Revelations on last year’s 36 Seasons – Sour Soul is easily the strongest in terms of instrumentation.
No would have blamed the trio of twenty-something Canucks if they had revealed a little trepidation when working with the legendary MC, yet BBNG show themselves a confident and worthy backing band that, if anything, outshines Ghostface’s own massive presence.
Concurrent with their many partnerships, the band records and releases its own material, which has thus far been capped off by their third LP, last year’s stunning III.
By far the most stewed upon of their releases, and the first consisting entirely of original compositions, the album typifies BADBADNOTGOOD’s extraordinary brand of funk- and hip-hop-informed jazz.
The band masterfully recorded III while building their own Toronto studio. The album packs the powerful punch of any top-tier rap record, and it ought to set a standard for authentic production and uncompromising attention to detail.
In a review of the album, NOW Magazine wrote, “Instead of imitating the manipulated loops of funk drummers that defined earlier rap, [BBNG] make references to the more robotic feel of contemporary drum machine beats, which, combined with their nods to indie rock, puts them in a category all their own.”
What really separates BBNG from similar-minded acts is their cunning ability to articulate hip-hop voicings and flow, without actual vocals, as well as their aggressive hip-hop stance.
Jazz and hip-hop have a long, intimate relationship, but too seldom do we hear such transcendent iteration that doesn’t just fill a niche, but inspires followers.
And if the heady interest in BADBADNOTGOOD is any indication – not to mention recent productions by Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, PRhyme – rap may well be headed toward a jazz renaissance yet.
We talked to the trio about their process, working with hip-hop royalty, and the definition of jazz.
You guys are far from the first to play hip-hip in a jazz format, but you seem to do something special with it. Was it a revelation for you that you could blend these two music forms?
Matt: Not entirely. When you learn jazz you can really apply that approach to any music. But it was nice for us; it felt fresh. Mostly it was just really fun to play.
Can you expand on how jazz can be so handily adapted?
Alex: Obviously there’s the technical side – harmony, solos, improvisation – but it’s more about applying a certain feeling and translating that into a new language and creating something new.
When we started playing together there was this immediate energy to go crazy and carry that feeling to different places. That’s where the jazz approach and technique comes in – it’s about channeling a feeling you experience with the music and following it in those spontaneous directions with the tools you have.
How did you start working with these major names in hip-hop?
Chester: Early on we got a big boost from Tyler the Creator after he saw our first video. Since then there have been tons of different DJs, artists, and people we admire checking out our music and hitting us up for work and shows. Basically from people coming across our music and finding something they liked and hitting us up.
Is it generally others who are approaching you?
C: It’s a mix of both. It’s a sweet age we live in, to be able to hit someone up out of the blue, to send them a beat or a song online. And if it’s something they like, they might respond and want to work on something else.
How did you come to collaborate with Ghostface Killah?
M: Three years ago, around the time we dropped out of school, we met Frank Dukes, an amazing producer from Toronto who is now our manager. He works with Drake more recently, but at the time he was working a lot with Ghostface. He came to our first show, and had this idea, “What if you guys made an album with Ghostface?”
Frank was also working with the Menahan Street Band – this awesome group from New York – and they had this really sick studio named Dunham. It’s all tape [analog recording]. It was kind of a revolutionary experience going there and seeing how other people record. It was really different than how we’d always seen studios, and approach and process.
We had the initial sessions [at Dunham]. Then we started building our own studio with their process in mind, and finished there using an extension of the techniques they taught us.
How did you actually work with Ghostface?
M: We would cut our parts in one studio and then send it over to Ghost; this is how almost every song is done these days.
We’ve met him a bunch of times but it’s rare that you actually cut the instrumental and the vocal track at the same time. Especially because we want to have a specific sound with our studio and Ghost has his own studio. We were the most comfortable doing the our parts separately, but we were constantly corresponding with each other in the process.
So you weren’t in the room with hime suggesting rhymes to use?
M: We didn’t, but Dukes actually made several thematic suggestions for the album – reference points from his past, one-off songs from his career – that he used as jumping-off points for his raps.
Who’s been your favorite artist to work with?
A: Definitely Ghost. He’s been quite a thrill to work with, between collaborating on multiple songs, to playing shows and hanging out with him. It’s been a pretty insane, fun time.
Working with MF DOOM has been really cool as well; he’s a legendary character in our musical listenings. We’re pretty excited about whoever we’re working with at the time. Each new person is a new favorite.
I loved your rework of “Seasons (Waiting On You)” by Future Islands. How did that happen?
M: Someone who works at Future Islands’ label is good friends with someone at our label, and they bounced around the idea of us doing a remix of the song. We took the stems apart, kept Sam’s [Samuel T. Herring] vocals and playing around with it to see what we could do with it. We ended up taking it in a very soul direction, as opposed to the upbeat, electronic sound of the original. We’re super proud of it – it turned out really cool.
The most recent album of your own, III, seems to be a major breakthrough in defining your own music.
C: We probably put 97 percent more effort into our third album than the first two albums. Through the process of playing shows, building our own studio and recording it all on tape, we took a lot of thought and time to write the songs. We tried to take our influences and experiences into account, and consider how we wanted to it sound.
Even without rapping on it, it’s clearly deeply impressed by hip-hop. Can you talk about the relationship of jazz and hip-hop?
C: Hip-hop and jazz, you might say they are brother and sister. Early hip-hop especially started out sampling a lot of jazz records, and that kind of created this ongoing cross-pollination between the two genres. That led to a lot of collaborations such as Guru’s Jazzmatazz, and Ron Carter playing with Tribe Called Quest. Now it’s even crazier with all these jazz artists covering classic hip-hop songs they like and working with producers and rappers.
M: I would add they both are very oriented around one solo performer. In jazz, even when there are many people playing in the band, there’s always one player who steps to the front to solo, and the rest step back and let them express themselves. Hip-hop is very much oriented the same way. You may have a chorus that involves all the members at once, but everyone has their own 12 or 16 or 32 bars to really shine and express themselves individually. They are very personal art-forms in that way.
Perhaps the starkest difference between the two genres today is audience. Your second record notes that, “No one above the age of 21 was involved in the making of this album.” Were you saying jazz can still relevant to younger, mainstream listeners?
A: As a statement, it was more about us saying we’re really proud of what we made, how it came together and what we accomplished. Being a part of the internet age and making mixtapes and putting up free music, you just want to show that anything is possible. Everyone should be encouraged to go out, make something, put it out there and be proud of it.
Why is jazz a genre that people seem to have more difficulty diving into?
M: Any kind of music has multiple ways of getting into it. A lot of people love jazz. Most people may not call themselves aficionados, but they’re not going to turn it off or think it’s noise. I really don’t think it’s inaccessible music.
A: There’s been a lot of people who have said they’ve gotten into our music and then gone into a deeper listenership of classic jazz artists and albums: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, all that stuff. Then there’s the reverse, where people realize something like, Oh, I’ve never heard the original “Electric Relaxation” [Ronnie Foster song that was popularly appropriated by A Tribe Called Quest].
So why do you think more young people aren’t listening to jazz?
Alex: It’s definitely less prominent in popular culture, and less dense in terms of new artists making music and playing all the time, but there is still a lot happening. You’ve just got to be aware of what’s going on around you. Like with anything these days, you’ve just gotta do your homework. It’s out there for anybody willing to listen, and it’s more accessible and available than ever.
What are you guys up to next?
Chester: We’ve been working on a lot on new material for our next album. It’s yet to be determined what it’s going to be or what it’ll sound like, but we’ve been writing a lot of ideas. And hopefully we’re going to play some shows with Ghostface. We’re always reaching out to different people to collaborate.