How BADBADNOTGOOD carved out a unique space in the music scene

In Lifted, Javon Anderson examines the long-standing relationship between jazz and hip hop.

Founded in 2010 by keyboardist Matthew Tavarez, bassist Chester Hansen, drummer Alexander Sowinski and later joined by saxophonist Leland Whitty, BADBADNOTGOOD are a group of musicians who wear their influences on their sleeves. As a result of staying true to their vision, they have carved out a unique space for themselves in the music scene, while having a list of interestingly diverse collaborations including hip-hop legends Ghostface Killah and the late MF DOOM and Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai. Their entire career is an interesting case study of how jazz and hip hop can intertwine and enhance one another.

Formed in Humber College’s jazz program, BADBADNOTGOOD emerged on the scene with their first album titled BBNG, released for free on Bandcamp in 2011. This debut was a refreshing fusion of jazz, hip hop and electronic music that found them indulging in their varied influences and showcasing their improvisational abilities. Alongside a few original compositions, the group covered artists including Flying Lotus, J Dilla, Nas, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and even Joy Division, using their jazz vocabulary and innate chemistry as a group to tie everything together.

Here’s an example of their take on J Dilla’s Fall in Love, originally produced for Slum Village. This track features Hansen providing a rounded bassline that retains the harmonic motifs of the original instrumental, Sowinski laying down the rhythmic foundations with a punchy yet discreet drum groove, and Tavarez’ skittering keyboard solos, all of it showing off the group’s dynamics and colourful harmony over the loop-based structures of more traditional hip hop.

BBNG was quite well received in the underground scene and in the blogging era of the 2010s. Soon after the release of The Odd Future Sessions on YouTube, BADBADNOTGOOD also caught the attention of Tyler, the Creator, resulting in another series of jam sessions.

Only a year after making their debut, BADBADNOTGOOD released their second record. BBNG2 made even more waves and was received very positively. This album repeated the previous formula of their first with more original compositions and covers and even stronger performances from each member. Their hip-hop influences are extremely apparent in live performances, with Sowinski even donning a pig mask in a similar fashion to MF DOOM. A highlight on this album is their take on Kanye West’s Flashing Lights, when around the 2:56 mark, they take a lot of creative liberties with their solos.

Alongside their studio albums, BADBADNOTGOOD earned collaborations and production credits with some of the most prolific artists working today, including Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah on their 2015 joint album Sour Soul.

Snoop Dogg, Earl Sweatshirt, RZA, James Blake, and Kendrick Lamar are but a few champions of BADBADNOTGOOD’s music that show how the band has been embraced by different music communities over the years. They’ve also worked very closely with Canadian artists like Frank Dukes, Kaytranada and Daniel Caesar.

Fast forward to 2021, and BADBADNOTGOOD collaborated with legendary Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai for the bulk of their newest full-length record, Talk Memory. Verocai is quite well-known in certain music circles for his pivotal self-titled record released in 1972. While sales of Verocai’s album were underwhelming upon its initial release, it gained a cult following among collectors and the underground beat-making scene in the late ‘90s and the 2000s; the music was sampled on songs by the likes of Madlib, MF DOOM, Ludacris and Statik Selektah. Verocai’s influence on Talk Memory is quite apparent as well, especially on the gorgeous, ethereal string arrangements that are coupled beautifully with contemporary production techniques.

Both Talk Memory and BADBADNOTGOOD’s previous album IV really speak to their widening interests in world music, especially in Latin jazz. Talk Memory is an emotive, cinematic-sounding return to their jazz roots, letting their other influences take a backseat — which is uncharacteristic of the group thus far. (The music video for Love Proceeding is also a callback to their home of Toronto, as it was filmed in the Regent Park neighbourhood.)

BADBADNOTGOOD’s career parallels the essence of Toronto as a city with a music scene filled with different cultural roots coming together. That spirit strongly reflects in the city’s art, especially in an internet age that has drastically changed the ways in which music is discovered, consumed and experienced. It’s exciting to think about what’s next for this innovative group.

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