Talking Jazz Rap with BadBadNotGood

Lauren Schwartzberg

BadBadNotGood

BadBadNotGood is a jazz trio for hip-hop and punk fans. Unsurprisingly, the Internet loves them; it’s where they found their groove. After meeting in Toronto’s Humber College jazz program, the trio took to YouTube with “The Odd Future Sessions Part 1”, a haunting eight minutes of jazz versions of Tyler, the Creator’s early work. A new sound was born and jazz entered the age of the millennial.

Since then, the trio of drummer Alex Sowinsky, bassist Chester Hanson, and pianist Matthew Tavares have released two mixtapes—BBNG and BBNG2—and will soon release their official debut album III. Unlike the past two releases, which featured jazz re-writes of hip-hop classics like Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” and Tyler the Creator’s “Bastard,” III is the group’s first foray into a complete set of original compositions. “Over the past year and a half we spent a lot of time writing and experimenting with different melodies, chords and styles of playing,” they said via email. “The final product of most songs on the record are a result of hours of jamming and hashing out ideas into completed songs.”

Throughout the album, the group maintains a commitment to the eerie hip-hop beats they grew up on, spun through a jazz school curriculum. Just take III’s first single, the hypnotizing “Can’t Leave the Night”. Its tinkling, high-pitched piano notes and anchored drums would work just as well under some harsh bars from RZA. “Confessions” opens just one up-beat away from being a booty-bouncing club track and the uplifting “Kaleidescope” is that “look ma, we made it” moment. This is jazz for those who grew up with hip-hop in the mainstream consciousness.

For this debut album, they’ve also used different technologies, like analog recording techniques that have captured their instruments in a whole new light, while also adding horns and strings for the first time. It’s a thorough complete picture of BBNG as a mature group with a clear uniform vision.

But it’s live where Bad Bad really thrive. I caught them performing between Trash Talk and Little Dragon during an late afternoon set at a South by Southwest, and they had the crowd in a mosh pit. Hanson gyrated towards the audience like a true punk bandleader, as Taveres leaned over the keys and shook his head so hard I wondered how he avoided puking, let alone playing the right notes, while Sowinsky thrashed behind on the drums. It was an intense, throttling experience, especially for three dudes playing jazz. Right after the show, we sat down to chat.

Do you improvise during the live show?

Matthew Tavares: Most of our material is pre-arranged in terms of sections and structure, but playing in the moment and working together as a three-piece usually makes our songs sound and feel different. With solo sections in songs we keep them open to any idea from any band member. We try and interact and improvise as much as possible while playing, while still keeping the music flowing and cohesive.

Chester Hanson: Being able to improvise is a great asset because it allows you and the people you're playing with to create on the spot, it keeps the music interesting. It's important to us when we play to always try and do something we've never done before, even if we mess up. Being spontaneous keeps things exciting. Our goal is to put out as much energy as possible. Whenever you see a band playing and they're having a good time it makes the whole show ten times better.

What is the best show you’ve ever been to?

MT: I saw Lightning Bolt when I was like 19 and it was crazy. It was the most intense live show I’ve ever been to. I thought that Wayne Shorter show was awesome also.

CH: That was amazing. It was so mind-blowing. I still think about that show sometimes.

Alex Sowinski: Charles Bradley. Last year at SXSW he played right after Eric Byrd and the Animals. Eric Byrd’s a legend and he made everyone in the crowd cry.

MT: I cried. He’s a soul singer and he comes from a pretty fucked up background.

AS: Yeah, a pretty insane upbringing with his life, his career, his family and at the end of the set he was really giving it and speaking on some really inspirational We got to work better, we got to love each other kind of stuff. He literally made everyone in the room cry and then he walked off the stage and gave everyone hugs.

Music has that power.

AS: Absolutely. And you don’t get to see people who do that a lot. That was the first show I ever saw someone cry at.

He was really crying on stage?

AS: He was crying and everyone in the room was crying. It was that sad I’m going to go home and be depressed, but it was that inner 'Ugh yes, I needed that' moment.

You guys went to Humber College’s jazz program. What is music college like?

AS: When we were there a lot a lot of people loved hip-hop as much as we did, so we all connected on MF DOOM and Flying Lotus and all that kind of stuff. A lot of people would get caught up in learning music and loving instrumental technical stuff, like loving chord progressions. Also, all the other real qualities of music like performing, enjoying yourself, being able to express your ideas on stage while you’re playing and just doing a bunch of cool stuff gets overshadowed because you’re studying and you got to do all your assignments. I think we kind of slid in our own little circle of connectivity between each other when we were there.

How did you meet?

AS: In a lounge talking about rap music.

Who?

MT: Odd Future, actually. And MF DOOM. We basically bonded over a love of music that was not what everyone else in jazz school was playing, essentially. There were definitely some cool dudes there, but not a lot of people that listen to hip-hop.

Where there girls there?

CH: Like 2 girls, basically.

Why do you think a school full of jazz musicians can connect on a producer like Flying Lotus?

AS: It’s cool from a musician’s standpoint because it’s a totally different style of live performance. It's easy when you're a band to feed off the energy in the crowd and express it directly in your performance but when you're DJing you can't really change the intensity of the song because it’s already recorded. At the same time though, it's really fun and gratifying to hear a song your familiar with really loud in a huge audience of people and there's no live band in the world that can re-create the feeling of a recording perfectly. It's nice to see DJ's who take risks and really focus on the energy of the crowd.

How do you get into the groove on stage?

AS: I personally don’t find it hard because people are standing in front of you and they want to hear some music so you just feel that you got to fucking do it and you got to do your best and you got to wil’ out and have fun and give people a show because they’re standing right there in front of you to see something.

CH: And when you go to shows and the band looks like they hate everyone that’s the worst. And then everyone in the crowd isn’t moving. We’ve played shows where no one in the crowd was moving in certain situations, but you still got to move. If you don’t move then no one’s going to fucking care, so you just got to get into it and forget about what’s happening.

MT: And not be so self-conscious about what you like or if you look goofy.

CH: If we just got off a flight or if we got no sleep the night before it could be like, for the first minute you’re like, Oh god, I’m going to die. Once we start playing usually it’s just a switch that happens where we’re all like, Ok this is what we’re doing got to put as much energy into it as possible. Even if you think you have no energy you have to reach in and try to get it.

MT: After playing after punk bands you got to bring it. Especially Trash Talk—Lee Spielman’s amazing.

AS: We don’t even have guitars, so we’ve got to do something.

Catch BadBadNotGood on their current UK and North American tour in support of III, which Innovative Leisure will release May 6.

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