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When I catch up with Kassa Overall on the final day of 2020, he’s holed up in Seattle, Washington. Both he and his girlfriend, the writer and scholar Lauren Du Graf, grew up there. Now they’re back, riding out the pandemic, “laying low and keeping safe.” That gives Overall plenty of time to return to the house he grew up in, and to the basement where his father had the four-track Tascam Portastudio with which he first made his own music tracks. “He never learned to use it,” says Overall, “but I did.” Overall’s father was an avid jazz fan, his mother “a hippie who learned to play tabla drums.” His older brother played saxophone. “I was learning how to walk and talk and swing all at the same time,” he says of his upbringing. “In our living room, there was a drum set, a piano, a trumpet, a sax and an early beat machine. So, by the time I was 5, I knew how to sequence beats. By middle school, I spent days doing that.” Back then, Overall soaked up Thelonious Monk’s recordings at the same time he was rapping along to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” While Overall studied music at Oberlin College, he was gigging as a drummer at jazz clubs. At Oberlin, he confronted faculty that endorsed his jazz studies but disapproved of his passion for hip-hop beat-making. After he landed in New York City and made his way as an in-demand drummer — “even though I easily spent as much time chopping beats as I did practicing paradiddles,” he says —he seemed to straddle two separate worlds, two sides of his own personality: displaying savvy technique and uncommon sensitivity as the drummer in pianist Geri Allen’s band; as a rapper/producer, combining force and tenderness in collaboration with the hip-hop collective Das Racist; inserting his own long, weird drum solo into a cover of the rapper Drake’s “Passion Fruit” on an early EP; flashing irrepressible charm alongside pianist Jon Batiste’s band on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert; and rapping stark lyrics about societal ills as a member of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s Social Science band.
[caption id="attachment_37482" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Kassa Overall (Photo: Courrtesy Bandcamp.com)[/caption]
Overall’s 2019 release, Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz, furthered a jazz/hip-hop/neo-soul blend that trumpeter Roy Hargrove helped pioneer (and it featured Hargrove, recorded six months before his untimely death). The album was also, he says, “what I needed to destroy that divide within myself.” Last year’s I Think I’m Good even more forcefully reflected his identity as “a backpack jazz producer — something like a cross between a jazz musician, a backpack rapper and a bedroom producer.” Some of the material was improvised on bandstands at jazz clubs, some in recording studios and some in the homes of his colleagues. All of it was chopped up and recombined using the skeletal music studio he carries in his backpack, whenever and wherever inspiration struck, including, yes, his bedroom. Late last year, Overall, 41, released a new collection of tracks via Bandcamp, Shades of Flu: Healthy Remixes for An Ill World. On it, he reinterprets tracks from his former employer, Allen; his good friend, Batiste; and from jazz masters past and present, including Miles Davis, Archie Shepp and Vijay Iyer. Overall’s combination of live performances, studio recordings and remixes and his bridging of jazz and hip-hop cultures are no longer new. Musicians such as Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus have made these approaches something of a lingua franca. Yet Overall possesses a rare balance of skills and experience on both sides of the equation that makes for a singularly compelling flow. During our conversation, he shares his rare perspective on the connections and disconnections between these cultures. Have you grown weary of talking about the relationship between jazz and hip-hop?I thought this was corny a while back, but after having the conversation a number of times I almost don’t want to deal with the idea that they are two different things. I can break down how they’re similar or different, but it starts to feel like it’s taking away from the art. I’d rather just discuss whether you think it’s good or not. Who cares what I’m blending? The real question is: Is it dope? If it’s trash, then I didn’t do it right. Both jazz and hip-hop represent points on a continuum of Black music, right?I feel like I’ve been saying “African rhythmic DNA” ever since I heard [trumpeter] Nick Payton say it. I went to Africa and to Cuba and I studied hand drums. I was able to take what I knew from listening to Elvin [Jones] and I could search for it and find it. I could apply it. It’s all the same thing. But at the same time, I feel that to flatten everything and say simply “Black music” is also somewhat reactionary or reductive. Because the reality is you have hip-hop and jazz, both of which grew out of African-American experience, from Black people in the United States. But you also have the Africans in Haiti, who have their own history and their own way of chopping things up. In Brazil and in Cuba, they have their ways. Even though in the end I may want unity, I also want all these African diasporic traditions to identify with and seek each other out. I have to respect the Afro-Brazilians’ particular approach. We’re all the same and different.
Even though I suppose my main campaign has been “hip-hop and jazz, it’s all the same thing,” at the same time, I respect the traditional jazz lineage. I have played with straight-up jazz musicians. I respect people who go from Bird on down to JD Allen or Immanuel Wilkins. If you don’t mess with beat machines or rapping, if you’re zoomed in on one tradition or one slice of that tradition, I respect that, if you’re good at it. I guess I don’t have the answer.You are bilingual in terms of jazz and hip-hop to an unusual degree, the way that, say, certain Cuban musicians are bilingual in Afro-Cuban and American jazz traditions.Yes, I can geek out on Elvin or I can geek out on Pharrell. Does each of those inclinations give you a different sort of insight?When it comes to playing the drums, I can approach an original jazz recording as the player, as how I would play behind Miles or Coltrane if I had that opportunity. I can listen to “Wise One,” for instance, and I can hear it from the drum set. Still, frankly, the reason a lot of these hip-hop producers are so deep is precisely because they may not know how to play it. They can come at it from a different perspective. Like a DJ, they can come at like it’s foreign. When you chop up a sample with a clear intention, you hear it as sonic material. You hear the air in the room. It’s just sound. You hear it in its pure state. You’re not thinking about “oh, that’s Herbie’s touch or that’s Tony’s ride cymbal.” You might not analyze it as “that’s a tom tom and that’s an acoustic bass and that’s a crash cymbal, and I know how they’re supposed work together.” You’re hearing it as it’s actually meant to be heard, as a unified piece of energy.
I can get inside the music with a musical ear and mathematical perspective or I can turn that off and chop as a beat-maker, where the god lies in the chop — chopping samples and putting it on these buttons. With jazz, the knowledge and the connections can sometimes get in the way. You might love Miles so much you can’t imagine chopping him up and putting him on a pad. You do chop up Miles’ version of “Freedom Jazz Dance” on your latest release Shades of Flu. How did that project take shape?When I was promoting the last release, Go Get Ice Cream, a few radio stations offered to do interviews and for me to do a guest mix, which means you just DJ and plays songs. But as a producer, I thought, “Why don’t I use this as an opportunity to showcase my skills and to remix everything I play? Instead of playing a Miles Davis song, I’ll play a Kassa Overall remix.” It morphed from playing someone’s song to sampling to remixing. As soon as the Corona thing got crazy, I felt the need to get to work, but livestreaming didn’t feel like the right medium. During the pandemic, I turned these remixes into a real project.The very title makes reference to both jazz and hip-hop, via the legacy of Madlib’s Shades of Blue, for which he famously remixed classic Blue Note Records tracks.First off, I have to say that the news just came out that [rapper-producer] MF Doom passed. And I want to acknowledge him. I am an MF Doom fan. I can’t think of one song of his that I didn’t enjoy. And that’s a way of getting to Madlib, because the album that I really used to listen to a lot was Madvillainy, the collaboration between Madlib and MF Doom. Just like in the jazz community, hip-hop had lineages too, passing the baton, especially among producers. And when J Dilla died, it became clear just how deep Madlib was. He understood Dilla like no one else, but he didn’t copy him. In my producer journey, I found that Madlib’s beats resonated more with me than even Dilla’s. That’s no criticism of Dilla. It’s just that Madlib is dealing with the jazz language more than even Dilla was. He is the closest one to making music that still feels super organic.
How do you think about your own aesthetic as a remix producer?In a post hip-hop musical reality and industry, the difference between an original and a remix is almost a matter of intention. You can sample a very well-known song and create a new song just by recontextualizing the music, or putting a new message on top of it. At the same time, there is a whole world of remix culture. The intention of the remix isn’t to say this is a new song, but more so to add to the original thought. A remix is technically still the same song, even though it may sound nothing like the original. Ultimately that creates this big grey area between “original” and “remix.” What if you could exploit that grey area and play between both musical identities? It opens up a whole world of possibility. The original can live, and be remixed, and then let go of to create a new original, all-in-one piece. On these new tracks of mine, I’m letting the originals breathe rather than just looping up a short sample. I’m letting the whole song breathe as is and adding to it. My ability to do that has to do with the fact that I speak that language of the originals. I speak the language of Miles Davis or Vijay Iyer. I can hear it from the drum chair. How did that approach manifest on this new remix collection?One of the last things I did for this project was to throw in a piece of Wallace Roney’s [“Shadow Dance”], may he rest in peace. I chopped up Wallace’s music and I dropped in some of my own drumming. I made it sound like we were trading phrases. When I superimposed my live drumming and my production onto Wallace, I reframed the original. And the original that I reframed was like this beautiful pure burst of energy. Wallace played those fast lines like no one else. You heard the fast line and the whole band, with Geri [Allen] comping, and it was like one unbreakable unit of energy. He had just died, but this felt so alive. I try to do that kind of thing a lot. When you’re sampling a song, it’s usually a finished master. The whole band is coming out of one channel. You have the ability to hear a whole band as one instrument.
Of course, the idea of a band cohering as one entity is essential to a lot of jazz.Yes. And I think there’s another way that hip-hop and jazz bridge. When you’re dealing with sound as a hip-hop producer, you’re willing to deal with non-harmonic tones, with chords that don’t go together. One of the first things that struck me about Public Enemy’s music, aside from the words and the attitude was that there are a lot of rubs, of disharmony. You’d hear a tea kettle and you’d think, “What note in the scale is that?” There’s actually some connection, I think, between that and the disharmony or discord in Ornette [Coleman] or Sun Ra. There’s a certain danger, a certain courage in the mix. You also remix Geri Allen’s “Unconditional Love.” How did your experiences with Geri affect your approach to this music?In too many ways to do justice. I learned so many different things. Aside from purely musical elements, one thing I learned was something I originally resisted, or that at first caused me frustration. Geri would send us a bunch of music, and then we’d rehearse some other stuff. Then we’d go to a soundcheck and we’d play some completely other music. Once we had all that together, we’d get on stage and she’d play some entirely different stuff. The selfish egotistical side of me was like, “Man you put me out there. I had this stuff prepared, and I was going to sound good.” But she was dealing with another approach — in the moment, reading the crowd or the situation and deciding what was right. I resented that at first, but now I realize that she was training us to feel the energy in the room and play what was needed, to be in that moment. Now I need to do that all the time, even when there’s no audience. I need to be prepared so that I can be spontaneous.Some time ago, in a coffee shop in Brooklyn, you played me an early version of your remix of Jon Batiste’s version of “What a Wonderful World.” Jon had already sort of reinvented it, by floating the well-worn ballad on a drone. But your remix, with its funky beat, kind of changes the whole thing up.For that one, I put in a classic breakbeat, from a song called “Impeach the President” [released by The Honey Drippers in 1973]. That breakbeat has its own lineage. You could look up that breakbeat to see just how many times that beat’s been used. Even though I didn’t use Jon’s full song, I used a bigger part than a typical hip-hop producer would use. Usually a producer would use a couple of bars. But I’m using a minute at a time, letting the music breathe a bit.Your relationship with Batiste runs deep. How did that extended appearance with his band on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert come about?When Jon realized what I was doing as a producer, he had his manager get in touch with mine. They asked me if I could DJ with turntables, if I could scratch. And I said, “No, but I can do something better. I can do what Jon actually wants but doesn’t know yet.” So I recorded him playing, I found samples and I just went wherever I wanted with the music. He invited me to come in for a day, to sit in. He liked it so much that I stayed for most of six months. How important was Roy Hargrove to the place you’ve arrived at musically?When I first got to New York, he was the coolest cat who was actually around. He was there for us, he wanted to play with us. He wanted to teach us by example. And in terms of jazz and hip-hop or anything else, he was the gatekeeper on both sides of the equation. He was the dude on the boat showing us the way to dry land. But he didn’t talk a lot about that. He just did it.Are there any rappers or producers making new music that have opened up new ideas for you?If you listen to the way some of the youngest rappers are rapping on the beat, it’s very interesting —there’s Soulja Boy, for instance, and Playboi Carti. These are not my favorite rappers. But they rap so far ahead of the beat, it’s crazy. If you listen to it, you’d think that they don’t know how to rap on the beat. But just like rapping behind the beat, it’s coded; it’s the new rhythmic code. I don’t think I’m inspired by their music or what they’re talking about, but their approach to the flow is very interesting. And that means the rhythm is evolving. These things always evolve in ways that are almost a secret. If you don’t know, it sounds wrong or useless. You think, “What is that? Turn that off.” But you need to listen to it. When you look back at the start of your career, does the music you’re making now seem like what was once just a hobby or a secret?For a long time, I felt like only one aspect, jazz drumming, was serious. That was my profession. I came to play the drums. But the truth is I was also getting lost in making beats and writing songs. It felt like just having fun. It felt like it lacked seriousness. It took some time to take it seriously. It turned out I like composing. I like writing lyrics. I like putting together song structures. At times, I’ve been frustrated while explaining who I am and what I do. I’ll say I’m a drummer or a rapper or a laptop artist. I like to create ideas, have musicians perform those ideas, take those ideas and chop them up, and have musicians play them again, you know? That is my culture and my version of composition.Maybe the fact that Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. won a Pulitzer Prize for music changes that equation a bit.Yeah, maybe I’m going to make a Kendrick Lamar cover. But it’s going to sound like Ornette.