BadBadNotGood are three affable Toronto guys who like to jam on funky instrumentals. In a city with a vibrant musical culture and three postsecondary schools with jazz programs, that's not an exclusive club.
Still, you don't get to be the backing band to the hip-hop elite by accident. With Sour Soul, their new record featuring the grainy, grimy lyrical vignettes of the Wu-Tang Clan's Ghostface Killah, BBNG demonstrate why they're at the top of their class. It's cliché but true – it's not what they play, it's how they choose to play it.
The analog-versus-digital debate is the sort of thing your neck-beard co-worker will corner you with when you're trapped in a hostage negotiation with a jammed printer. Talking to the guys in BadBadNotGood, however, you realize that some aspects of this debate actually matter in understanding why a record such as Sour Soul sounds the way it does.
Case in point: recording music on the relatively inflexible medium of reel-to-reel tape – where editing has to be done using a razor blade, or not at all – versus recording onto a computer with its infinitely tweakable options.
"Tape is so awesome – you actually feel like you're playing a live show," keyboardist Matthew Tavares explains in between bites of Little Italy's finest Mexican food. When recording using digital equipment, he says, "it'll be super relaxed, like, 'Oh, we can overdub this, take the bass out … probably edit those bass notes later. But with tape it's, like, 'This is the take, this is what's going to be on the album three years later.'"
If you think the idea that a factor such as recording to tape couldn't possibly affect the outcome, listen to Tone's Rap. The groove is so sludgy and slick, you'd think it came from Fort McMurray, and every echoing chord or walloping snare hit is a calculated part of the velvet-draped funk.
When drummer Alexander Sowinski pares back even the tiny bit of expression he allows himself, Chester Hansen's bass picks up the baton. They sound as if they're old hands at this; less mature musicians might give in to the temptation to overplay, but Tavares's languid keys set the vibe – spooky and minimal – and Sowinski and Hansen get on board. You can tell they're listening to each other, and closely.
So is Ghost. The sentiment behind Tone's Rap isn't new to anyone who's heard gangsta rap, or read Iceberg Slim (in short: Pimpin' still ain't easy), but the delivery – confident, behind the beat, a little bit pained – will make even the most seasoned Wu-Tang fan drool. The alchemy is obvious.
BBNG were born for this gig. If Ghost is Dylan, BBNG are the Band.
Two out of three BadBadNotGood-ians discovered the Wu-Tang Clan the way many kids discover cigarettes, cutting school and the joys of fireworks: older brothers.
Tavares: "He was playing it a lot in the car when I was in Grade 8."
Hansen: "When he would pick me up from school, he'd just play all the stuff my mom wouldn't want me to listen to."
Sowinski: "I have an older sister but she doesn't listen to a lot of rap, so …"
He caught up nonetheless. By the time the three budding musicians arrived at Toronto's Humber College, they had hip-hop and jazz in common.
Their first taste of attention arrived when they uploaded a YouTube clip of themselves jamming on Bastard, an underground sensation by Odd Future crew leader and rap's enfant terrible Tyler, The Creator. Tyler tweeted at them, eventually joined them in another video and the Internet went nuts, as it is wont to do.
Two albums and a groundswell of positive notices later, BadBadNotGood found themselves in 2012 backing Odd Future member and R&B game-changer Frank Ocean live in front of thousands of eager fans at California's Coachella festival, when they got the proposal. Frank Dukes, a young Toronto hip-hop producer whose star was on the rise thanks to placing his beats with Ghostface and others, wanted them to come record at a friend's studio in New York, and see if they could get Ghost to rap over the results. The project took three years to finish, during which time they also recorded and released their third album, III. But Sour Soul was worth the wait.
The studio, which belongs to the Menahan Street Band, a soul outfit with a penchant for the sounds of the 1960s and '70s, housed a collection of rare vintage instruments and recording equipment. In retrospect, it seems vaguely odd; why would BadBadNotGood, who partly distinguished themselves from their peers in the jazz world by embracing contemporary rap, be drawn to such a retro environment?
The band doesn't appear to see a contradiction. "We all love soul music, as well as hip hop," Sowinski says.
"It was like, let's just use the sound of this studio. That became the general idea, that everything was going to be live – we're not going to program it or flip an idea or try to make a beat. It's a real soul record kind of thing."
Dukes, who unexpectedly walks in on our Mexican food summit, agrees that he had no intention of having the band record, and then throwing it all in a sampler and chopping it up the way he might do when making beats for the likes of Drake (whose recent viral sensation 0-To-100/The Catch Up Dukes co-produced with fellow Torontonian Boi-1da).
"That wasn't really my vision for this record," Sour Soul's co-producer and co-writer says. "I just had a thing in mind that I wanted to get out of them."
That thing, whatever it is, permeates Sour Soul like cigar smoke wafting out under a hotel room door. It's there in the wistful strings that swoop in and out of mellow instrumental Stark's Reality, and in the tension of the bass-deprived skittering verse of Six Degrees. It's in little lyrical details such as Ghost pausing to tell listeners to hide their drug money better because "them shoeboxes don't work" any more, "like money in the mattress." You can go to school and spend years practising scales and chords, you can take sides in the endless battle between tradition and innovation, but if you don't listen for that thing, forget it.
Even if you find it, you might not even be able to explain what it is.
"We've never, like, talked about it," Chester says. "It just, like, evolved."