Toronto-based band BADBADNOTGOOD (BBNG) is quickly making a name for itself with its unique jazz reinterpretations of hip-hop songs by the likes of Dilla, Odd Future, and Gucci Mane. Like their hip-hop brethren, they’re staying busy by playing at Coachella, collaborating with Frank Ocean and Earl the Sweatshirt, and finishing BBNG3 –which will be out early next year. As if that were not enough, they are in the midst of planning a spring East Coast tour.
BBNG is Matt Tavares on keys, Chester Hansen on bass, and Alex Sowinski on drums. I recently talked to them about their second album BBNG2 and the intersection of jazz and hip-hop.
How did you all get so deep into jazz at such a young age?
Chester: We all sort of grew up with different musical backgrounds, but we were all into classic hip-hop. Personally, that’s how I got into music. Then we started learning jazz all separately and then met and discovered that we all loved hip-hop and wanted to start interpreting songs that we loved from hip-hop in a new way.
Alex: I personally got into jazz by learning to play my instrument. My teacher is a jazz drummer and he started showing me certain things and I thought the music and the musicianship were really cool so I started listening to jazz and going to jazz camps.
Matt: We all went to college for jazz music and that’s where we met and realized we all shared the exact same taste in music. We really liked hip-hop and MF Doom specifically.
Alex: Matt and me went to the same MF Doom show way before we were even friends.
So how would you describe your music?
Matt: I don’t know. I just say it’s music. I don’t say I’m in a jazz band, I just say I’m in a band. I mean it’s kind of hard because people get upset when you label things “jazz” because they really have a strict conception of what jazz can be. I mean jazz is a huge tradition and some people think you’re disrespecting it when you don’t follow it. I just say it’s music.
Alex: It’s definitely a combination of hip-hop and jazz, but it’s also electronic stuff and experimental music.
Chester: We sort of like to let people check it out and decide what they think about it. On our last album on the “genre” tab in iTunes we put an emoticon of the smiley shrugging.
You new album BBNG2 just dropped, what has been the response?
Chester: We have gotten so many emails and tweets. We’ve had a couple of really good reviews so far. Lots of people are hitting us up and telling us what their favorite tracks are.
Alex: The reference to the whole “under 21” thing on the BBNG2 website is not to stress that we’re young musicians, it’s that we actually did the whole album ourselves. We mixed, mastered, produced, we did everything. Matt did all the mastering with a friend of ours and coded the website and everything. It’s not to be cocky or anything, but to show that it’s possible and it should be appreciated.
My favorite track on BBNG2 is “Lemonade.” Talk to me about how you all chose to do that song. Most people don’t think “jazz” when they hear Gucci Mane.
Chester: That’s actually the first hip-hop song that we all played together. Which is pretty funny.
Alex: When we were like jamming and it was basically like a joke. I had started talking to Matt a lot because we both found out about Odd Future on the internet and we were like “Oh shit” and got crazy about it. But one thing they did was their own version of “Lemonade” so we were just jamming and playing around with it. Then Matt started playing the melody of it and it turned out to be so dope. So on the new mixtape we remade it to be this hype, going hard thing. So we go as fast as we can play the melody. It’s so fun playing it live so we figured we’d put it on the album. It’s just a fun arrangement.
In another interview you guys discussed the idea of “standards” in hip-hop, can you talk more about that?
Matt: Jazz has like a canon and there are definitely songs were people are like “those are the songs.” And I know that there are songs in hip-hop that are really popular, but they might only listen to Juicy J and not realize that there is a bunch of dope Dilla shit that existed before him.
Alex: It wasn’t that we think there should be an actual song list, but it was more so, why can one genre have this list of songs that can be jammed on while another one can’t. So for us it was more about converging those two ideas instead of keeping them two concrete things. I kind of see the whole hip-hop process as an extension of jazz. With rock music and other music, you have a band and whatnot. But in hip-hop, you have a performer over something. So Jay Electronica may rap over a song. So it’s more about the one person doing a solo performance over a song than in other genres. For instance, people talk about John Coltrane’s lines and people talk about Lil B’s lines. I think they are way more alike than they are different.
Do you guys ever plan to do a “straight ahead” jazz record?
Unanimous response: No. Probably not.
Matt: The other thing is standards have been done. Playing a blues or standards is fun, but there are a thousand recordings of people playing those songs, I don’t think there are a thousand recordings of people playing “Lemonade.” So I think it’s way more interesting to play songs like that.
Alex: It’s also fun to try and take a song that’s a two-note melody and try and make it a whole new composition and come up with our interpretation because you don’t have any rules, like chord progressions, that you have to follow in order to retain the original qualities of the song.
Chester: We view standards as really good influences and it definitely affects the way we play. But what we love to play is what we’re doing and try to make more of a modern jazz music.
Alex: It’s hip-hop that we want to dive into more. There are so many rhythms, good melodies, great production in hip hop songs. So that’s why we’re sticking with that.
Interview by Fredara Mareva