Chilling With The Playful Band Marrying Jazz & Hip-Hop
For a genre so time-tested and celebrated, “jazz-hop” deserves a catchier name. The sound cemented around the early ’90s, when rap trio A Tribe Called Quest tapped legendary double bassist Ron Carter for purity—“that straight bass sound.” In retrospect, it’s surprising the crossover between jazz and hip-hop didn’t happen sooner. There is a shared spirit—activism manifest as musical performance. Jazz and hip-hop can transfix listeners, layering a foundation of bass and drums with repetitive elements, until a solo trumpet, or rap verse, breaks out from the mix like a call to action. Leading that revitalized sound is BADBADNOTGOOD, four men from Toronto—featuring Alex Sowinski on drums, Chester Hansen on bass, Matt Tavares on keys, and Leland Whitty on sax—whose cover of Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” laid the groundwork for their success.
Jazz-hop, as a genre name, is as bland and unblended as casserole, and, worse, it’s misrepresentative. The sound of jazz-hop isn’t jazz for the hip-hop minded or vice versa—it’s something entirely new. Even as BBNG’s new album, IV, brings multireedist Colin Stetson on for a song, the band recognizes that their sound isn’t for the jazz purists. “I think the traditional jazz critic would still really dislike this album,” Tavares told me when we met at East Village bar Elvis Guesthouse. Traditionalists be damned—jazz-hop isn’t a mash of sounds, it’s a wave.
The band knows a thing or two about hoity-toity critics, having studied jazz music for a couple of years at Toronto’s Humber College before dropping out to fully commit to the group. In fact, BBNG’s breakout song, the reimagining of “Lemonade,” was dismissed by their jazz professors at Toronto’s Humber College. But Tyler, the Creator felt differently when he found a video of them online. He ended up promoting the band, kicking off a long-standing collaborative relationship. As such, the members of BADBADNOTGOOD are both appreciative of their time in school, and suspicious of the paralyzing effect it can have on students.
“The problem with academia is that it makes you hyper-aware of everything that’s happening,” Tavares says. “When Miles Davis, or John Coltrane, or anyone caught up in a scene in a moment, was performing, they weren’t studying that scene to be those people.” Sowinski added, “If you want to [study music] you can, but you can also create your own legacy. Have fun. I feel like the jazz community doesn’t really reflect any ideals. The DIY rock scene has people creating their own movements, but [in jazz] you’re focused on so many things, you don’t realize you can build a great scene for music and shows if you just pull people together.”
As one of the genre’s forerunners, BBNG isn’t concerned with the frivolousness of genre names, or worried about how their legacy will play out alongside jazz’s old masters. Instead, they’re busy making music and touring, defining their scene. They’re studying up on Brazilian bossa nova as they make beats on their laptops, or worrying about which phở or bánh mì spot they’re gonna hit up next. Tavares assured me that Toronto has the best Vietnamese food. “I guess I haven’t been to Vietnam, though,” he added.
From the start, BBNG made its name by turning sharp instrumentals into imaginative covers, tracing hip-hop’s long-standing collaborative energy. Their initial draws came from their covers, jazzified versions of Odd Future or Waka Flocka Flame. After that initial hype died down, the band found their own success through original compositions. IV is BBNG’s most eclectic album yet, with a cast of extras that includes Future Island’s vocalist Sam Herring, electronica producer Kaytranada, and poet/rapper Mick Jenkins. “We’ve done instrumental albums, and we’ve done the album with Ghostface,” Sowinski says. “Having all these different flavor palettes come through with the vocalists is probably [IV’s] biggest standout.”
Getting all those collaborators into one studio is no small feat, but Tavares described it as an “organic process.” For example, the band’s cover of Future Island’s big hit, “Seasons,” set the gears in motion that led to their collaboration. “Future Island pitched the idea to us, and they loved it,” Tavares explained. “And part of the deal was like, okay, we’ll give you this remix for free but we have to work in the future.”
If IV is marked by its range of musical styles, it is also noteworthy for its live energy. At BBNG’s shows, a jazz jam can quickly escalate into full-blown mosh pits. For the new album, each contributor joined BBNG in-session to create music, a far cry from the over-email exchanges that solidified the band’s collaborative album with Ghostface Killah, Sour Soul. “99% of the songs were with everyone playing in the same room,” Sowinski says, even emcee Mick Jenkins. “I feel like it’s really rare to have a rapper in the same room as you’re composing a song together.”
“They’re a bunch of assholes. But they smoke and make music together, so I put up with them.”
The band even added an additional musician to the mix, saxophonist Leland Whitty. Whitty had previously featured and toured with the band when they were near Toronto, but he didn’t hop onto the tour van until early 2016. At our interview, he was the quietest of the bunch—possibly due to a vicious hangover. “They’re a bunch of assholes,” Whitty said of his fellow band members. “But they smoke and make music together, so I put up with them.” Musically, however, his presence is immediately felt, with tracks that are injected with new life—take the wild cacophony of “Confessions Pt. II,” as Whitty and Stetson’s saxophones duel near the track’s end.
In Toronto, the band finds themselves in the midst of another burgeoning music scene. “There’s this really good cut of music coming from Toronto, which is exciting because ten years ago it didn’t exist at all. Especially with rap and R&B,” Hansen told me. While the quartet has yet to work directly with Toronto’s cultural ambassador, Drake, Hansen’s bassline was sampled heavily for the rapper’s single “0 to 100.”
The love for Toronto isn’t just skin-deep either. I asked why I should visit the city, and all of BBNG answered at once. “It’s clean, it’s safe, it’s got the best food. Best food. Bomb-ass food. You can bike everywhere. The weather’s nice. Public transit. Oh, and the OVO store is there.” Watch out, Drake. BBNG is coming for your seat.
BBNG describes their musical progression as a refinement, but, IV with its tremendous flurry of sounds and features, doesn’t clearly indicate where they’re heading next. What do you do when your album satisfies wholly? For the future, BBNG is looking behind and in front of the camera. Though the band lacks many music videos, Tavares says it isn’t by design. “Especially with this album having so many features, we want this album to have a strong presence, and a good block of content—music and video.” The accompanying visuals could enhance BBNG’s already atmospheric sound.
Speaking of, the band really wants to score a movie. While BBNG did feature on the soundtrack for the RZA’s The Man With the Iron Fists, the songs weren’t included in the score. “We’ve actually tried to score a movie a few times, but it hasn’t quite come to fruition,” Tavares said. “If you’re reading and you’re interested, hit us up.” You should. A genre-bending, genre-leading band this dynamic deserves the visuals to match.
BADBADNOTGOOD’s fourth record IV, will be released July 8th via Innovative Leisure.
All images shot exclusively for Milk by Charles Caesar.
Art direction by Kathryn Chadason.
Special thanks to Elvis Guesthouse.
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