While the general consensus is that BadBadNotGood are a jazz/rap band, they’re really much harder to pigeonhole; BBNG are that rare group that truly defies easy categorization.
It’s even difficult for the Toronto-based band to define their own music, says BBNG bassist Chester Hansen. “I think at one time, it [jazz/rap] was an accurate description, but now our influences are so different,” he explains. “We still have the influences we had then, but also a huge mix of things we’re discovering.”
That’s readily apparent on BBNG’s 2016 release, IV, their first album featuring longtime collaborator, saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Leland Whitty as an official member. Although Whitty had recorded and gigged with the band regularly prior to IV, until early 2016 BBNG were a three-piece comprised of Hansen, keyboardist Matthew Tavares and drummer Alexander Sowinski.
“We’ve been playing with Leland for years and anytime we had a show that was accessible – Montreal, Ottawa, whatever – we’d bring him,” says Hansen. “For the last year-and-a-half he’s been doing everything, every session.”
The band, Whitty included, originally met while studying jazz at Toronto’s Humber College and formed in 2010. Their first performance was a mash-up of rap tunes played in a jazz style for Sowinski’s jury performance, which prompted the adjudicating panel assembled by the college to bluntly rule that that the performance had no musical value.
Given the band’s very warm critical and popular reception since then, that’s a statement that seems at best, shortsighted, and at worst, just plain wrong.
“Anytime you add a new person it brings another dimension, another set of opinions and more musical ideas.” – Chester Hansen of BadBadNotGood
BBNG have since become highly successful, both as a touring outfit and as recording artists, and have collaborated with a variety of other musicians, including Ghostface Killah on their 2015 album Sour Soul. On IV, released in July of 2016, collaborators include Future Islands’ frontman Sam Herring, sax player Colin Stetson, hip-hop artist Mick Jenkins, Polaris Prize short-listed producer Kaytranada and singer-songwriter Charlotte Day Wilson.
Collaboration, both within the band and with outside artists, has a definite impact on BBNG’s writing and recording process. “Every day we collaborate,” says Hansen. “We’re a band of four, but the ideas two or three of us might come up with might be different than the ideas the others have. Anytime you add a new person it brings another dimension, another set of opinions and more musical ideas; especially bringing in collaborators who are artists in their own right, and have a wealth of material they’ve been doing.”
Initially lauded for their jazz-based covers of hip-hop originals, BBNG have since transitioned to writing and recording original material.
“Early on we didn’t spend much time writing songs,” says Hansen. “Covers were a quick, fun, way to start playing together, and, when we came to the point where we were writing our own songs, it was valuable to have done that. Really, it’s a natural progression of being musicians and playing together. It was the next step after playing shows, recording more together and working on music every day. And every day we’re learning more about how we write.”
Their writing and recording process was, and is, very open, “Nine times out of ten it’s all of us in the room on some random combination of instruments,” says Hansen. “Coming up with ideas, but it’s never the same twice. We don’t have a formula,”
With Whitty in the mix full-time, BBNG have expanded their instrumental palette substantially. “There are a lot of instruments – woodwinds and strings – that the other guys don’t play, and that allowed for a lot more arrangement on the record,” says Whitty, speaking from Toronto’s Pearson Airport only minutes before the band heads to Japan for a gig at the Summer Sonic Festival in Osaka.
Along with the new instruments, and a taste for collaboration, the band’s own musical evolution also blurs the lines between genres, and displays a growing appetite for incorporating a variety of other styles into their music. The result is a blend of soul, jazz and hip-hop-based tunes and electronic elements that, while wide-ranging, displays a singular voice unique to the band.
Onstage and on record, it’s not about being perfect, it’s about capturing the moment, and the distinct mix of personalities. “We like to have fun and create music and we all play multiple instruments,” says Hansen. “We’re creating a feeling, catching a vibe, and sometimes the perfect take is the one that has a really noticeable mistake at one part, that one of us will be bugged by, and another will say, ‘C’mon, this is so good.’”
Capturing that on record was easier than before, given the fact that all of the collaborators taking part on IV came to BBNG’s studio (a space they took over from The Cowboy Junkies) to work. That’s a rarity these days, given it’s far easier to transfer files from other locations, but nothing beats working together, face to face.
“All the people on the record are people we get along with, and they’re friends of ours, so it was really amazing working with them,” says Hansen. “A lot of people on the record we met at shows, at festivals, and got to know them, which is really cool.”
There have been naysayers, who feel that BBNG doesn’t fit into the definition of jazz, or hip-hop, or, whatever convenient stylistic box in which you’d try to place them. But jazz has never been a form that you can put into any kind of definitive box, anyway. For BBNG, where they fit in isn’t really a concern. They just do what they do, regardless of what your definition of jazz is.
They believe their approach is just another way of driving the form forward.