Not to point any fingers, but Toronto’s BADBADNOTGOOD can count themselves partially responsible for the ridiculous amount of musical covers that are uploaded to YouTube by young hopefuls looking for some form of virtual stardom. Alex Sowinski, Matt Tavares, and Chester Hansen make up the jazz trio who, alongside the likes of Justin Bieber, Cody Simpson and Karmin, are a part of the marginal one per cent of musicians that were discovered through the renowned video hub. Back in 2010, when they were the only Humber College jazz students who had ever heard of Gucci Mane, all it took was a few jam sessions to catch the eyes of Odd Future’s Tyler, The Creator, leaving the rest to become proverbial Internet history.
But it wasn’t that simple. After all, it’s no small feat to bring jazz to the masses when it’s long been a genre that’s lounged comfortably in the background while more commercially-friendly styles auto-tuned their way to the forefront. And maybe that’s what makes BBNG so interesting. They’re self-proclaimed music nerds who evade the hipster mentality of “so-uncool-it’s-cool” by merely playing what they like, without the try-hard, vibe-killing gimmicks. Not surprisingly, it works for them. With spine-tingling covers ranging from Kanye to A Tribe Called Quest, and collaborations with names like Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, and MF DOOM, they’ve earned their spot amongst hip-hop’s heavyweights, readying them for another heavily anticipated album (via Lex Records).
So cue the Wu chants, because that’s where Sour Soul comes in. With the legendary Ghostface Killah and producer Frank Dukes in tow, BadBadNotGood’s latest project sees them flux their growth and extreme technical abilities in fashioning a malleable sound. It supplements GFK’s mic duties and quick-witted rhymes and with nods to the lush, laid-back production of the ’70s, they prove themselves to be more than just a jazz fusion trio. On Sour Soul, they’re true artists of their craft. To shed some light on their current state, we caught up with BBNG – alongside Frank Dukes and the saxophonist Leland Whitty – just a few hours before their headlining slot at Converse Rubber Tracks Live in Toronto. With red cups in hands, BadBadNotGood and their squad shared their thoughts on collaborations, friendship soundtracks, and the awkwardness of genre tags, and did so in their most natural setting – a pre-drink.
In a time where we’re constantly seeing remixes, collaborations and experimentation, do you think we’re reaching a point where defining styles of music is becoming irrelevant?
ALEX SOWINSKI: Yeah, I mean its always kind of been irrelevant in the sense that if you like certain sound waves, that’s cool.
MATTHEW TAVARES: Basically because of the Internet, anything is possible and everyone has access to endless amounts of music from every era.
FRANK DUKES: Anyone can work with anyone based off of you just hitting them up on Twitter.
SOWINSKI: You can make ambient music out of music from a thousand years ago or stuff from Africa that was made yesterday. Anything is possible.
DUKES: Like a whole bunch of samples from the Drake record [If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late] were just from SoundCloud artists who don’t have albums out. It kind of shows how things are just constantly evolving because of the Internet.
You can see how ridiculous it’s getting judging by the SoundCloud genre tags.
TAVARES: Totally, you can get anything. Ours are like hearts or like emojis.
SOWINSKI: My favourite is Marvel Alexander. He always puts “ralph-level” (laughs).
You guys have always been involved in the cross-breeding of genres. What kind of challenges does fusing different styles of music present?
SOWINSKI: Well, a lot of times things don’t work and a lot of times things surprisingly work. I mean, one thing that’s really cool about pursuing things with all these boys is that we always jam it out, we always play it out, and if it doesn’t sound good, there’s always three or four or five people fucking going with you to figure it out.
TAVARES: It also makes it really hard when you first meet someone and they’re like, “What kind of music do you play?”. It’s really hard to tell them, “Well, it’s a fusion of this and this” and as it leaves your mouth, you just hear how lame it sounds (laughs). What this person is imagining is not at all what we do.
CHESTER HANSEN: It’s like jazzy hip-hop… you just gotta listen to it.
I’m sure it’s redundant to ask, but what is it about hip-hop that attracts you guys?
SOWINSKI: Everything (laughs).
TAVARES: Flavour, style, samples, emotion, beat making.
SOWINSKI: Swag. It’s the swag. You can feel the emotion. The same thing that makes jazz so awesome, you can feel the emotion. You can let it out or you can party and have a good time.
DUKES: But even if it’s a party anthem, it’s still coming from a real place.
In terms of Sour Soul, how did the collaboration come about?
DUKES: So it was 2010 or so and I was doing a lot of tracks for Ghostface. Fast forward a few years and I met these guys, and I was just kind of getting into the process of recording live bands and working with musicians.
SOWINSKI: Through the Menahan Street Band, right?
DUKES: Yeah. I sampled this band, the Menahan Street Band, but leading up to that I had just kind of been a hip hop producer – sampling records, chopping up samples and stuff. I sampled the Menahan Street Band for this 50 Cent song and just became really good friends with them and ended up hanging out with them at their studio when I first moved to Brooklyn. They changed my whole approach to music. Around that time, Ghost’s manager had reached out and hit me up about doing a full project with Ghost, so him and I started recording a lot of songs. I had just met these guys a couple months before, did a couple sessions, and just reached out. I had a vision for what these guys were doing at the time and thought it could work with what Ghost was doing, and everything came together really easily. We spent like five or six days locked in the studio in Brooklyn and just recorded like 11 songs.
TAVARES: It was actually so much fun though, it was amazing.
SOWINSKI: It was the most intense musical setting I’d ever been in.
DUKES: It’s interesting because I think at the time we didn’t know each other that well, and it kind of changes the dynamic because now I see these fucking guys like every day (laughs).
TAVARES: I think the whole record is almost just like our friendship (laughs).
DUKES: That should be the quote.
TAVARES: I think the third night in the studio, we just kind of rock jammed. That was the night MCA died, and we actually recorded “United States Of No Sleep” till breakfast with Chester screaming on the mic. It was sick.
What about the title, where did Sour Soul come from?
DUKES: I felt like it embodied the record. Ghost said it on one of the first songs we recorded.
TAVARES: Wasn’t that the working title for a long time? I remember in the studio when we were working on that track; we didn’t have a tape and we were like, what should we call this? We label all of our tapes, so we just wrote it down.
DUKES: I remember that. It sounded like a soul song because he had a weird tuning on it. It was like a shoegaze tuning.
TAVARES: You know, tuning the strings on the guitar.
DUKES: It was this soul style, but it had this weird tuning on it so it sounded kind of sour. It was kind of the genesis of it because we weren’t planning on calling the record that – at least at that point. But after Ghost had said that line, it kind of embodied the whole energy of the record and made sense.
You guys haven’t heard of the Mexican psychedelic pop band, Sour Soul, have you?
SOWINSKI: Yo, I saw them on YouTube. They do their thing. Shout out to them.
TAVARES: We’re going to have to fight on the Internet for the index on a Google search (laughs).
The tone for the record is very cinematic and feels a bit more reserved instrumentally to supplement Ghostface’s vocals. With his face being the cover art, how do you avoid it being interpreted as Ghostface Killah featuring BadBadNotGood, as opposed to an actual collab?
TAVARES: It doesn’t really matter how you look at it because it was originally going to be a Ghostface album that featured us, and then it kind of switched.
SOWINSKI: I think it makes more sense because there’s instrumental sides to it and we were just kind of laying the ground work for him to tell the story.
DUKES: I think when producing rap music you just have to remember that ultimately it’s about the artist and making sure you’re doing everything you can to support that and avoiding trying to steal the show.
SOWINSKI: Our sound is also sort of like trying to be expansive with everything we can. We’re not going to try to force one thing and make it sound like this is all that we do with just one sound. It made sense to try to create some emotion and try something new. I mean, we tried to get Chester being the one on the cover but it didn’t really work out (laughs).
HANSEN: Yeah, I had a couple trial poses going (laughs).
For someone who’s listening to the album for the first time, what’s the ideal atmosphere to consume it?
SOWINSKI: You know, a couple candles, a bathtub, some bubbles and Epsom salt, green kush, pink kush (laughs).
TAVARES: Some beers, you know, just hanging out. It’s more like an at home, introspective kind of record than one you’re going to hear at the club. And that’s exactly what we wanted it to be.