Photos: Miikka Skaffari/WireImage; Marcus Ingram/Getty Images; Gary Miller/Getty Images; Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images; Patrick O'Brien Smith; Courtesy of the artist
6 Artists Expanding The Boundaries Of Hip-Hop In 2023: Lil Yachty, McKinley Dixon, Princess Nokia & More
Jazz, psychedelic rock, ambient and more permeate the work of artists such as Kassa Overall and Decuma. As hip-hop turns 50, meet the artists who are continuing to push the genre's multifarious sounds.
DJ Kool Herc was messing with soul vocals and drum breaks when he invented what’s now known as the break beat — the very element that gave birth to the genre on Aug. 11, 1973.
Hip-hop was literally built off a sample. And in the decades since, the genre has thrived off those same omnivorous instincts, oftentimes to where even the terms "rap" and "hip-hop" don’t feel precise enough to describe the genre’s innovation and sheer diversity. (Five years before Kanye West declared rap the new rock ‘n’ roll to describe its popularity, Los Angeles rapper Open Mike Eagle wasn’t even satisfied with the word "indie" being tacked on to his brand of hip-hop: "That's too blanket of a term I think to really apply to what I attempt to do.")
As hip-hop turns 50, the artists behind some of its most exciting releases show that more than ever, the genre’s boundaries are porous — and that pushing boundaries remains in its DNA.
"I can’t claim to be super methodical with my genre blending. … My emotions just well up in me and spill out in whatever form my brain decides," Decuma once said. The rapper and producer was being modest.
2023’s let's play pretend offers the best possible explanation for his blend of hip-hop, ambient, and experimental genres, as if inspired by Xiu Xiu’s white-knuckle intensity: "I write ambient music because life feels like one long, dissonant drone," he raps in fourth track "basketball."
This genre-blending is how Decuma expresses, with admirable precision, the trauma that stems from physical, sexual and racial violence. It also underscores lyrics like, "I'm so alone with my secrets, and so I shared them with this f— stuffed tiger just so something can hear it." How it felt to be robbed of his innocence could not be made more explicit.
In September, Decuma will release a new album, titled feeding the world serpent.
On her 2023 album art school dropout, Jamee Cornelia created a relatable, modern-day soundtrack to the gig economy lifestyle. On "Campus Radio," Cornelia briefly pretends that she is a college radio disc jockey. Using her best late-night FM voice, she teases an interview with her school’s most promising musician, on "what it’s like to be a full-time student, a minimum wage cashier, and a touring musician."
Instead of just using her words, though, Cornelia uses her diverse artistic background — like when she was a videographer for her skate team, until "Odd Future happened and all my friends became rappers" — to depict what juggling those multiple hustles feels like. Sometimes, working the gig economy can feel like "Routine," where writing to-do lists for the week and month comes together as easily as her flow fits in the pocket. Other times, it's as grueling and cathartic as "Rock!," where crunchy hard rock guitars meet Three 6 Mafia-style club chants.
In sound and substance, Cornelia deftly creates a world where any small job (or genre, really) feels necessary to take on.
This GRAMMY-nominated bandleader, drummer, producer and rapper has already talked about how jazz and rap offer a more complete history of Black music in America than they do separately. He’s also explained why introducing rap sensibilities to jazz music makes sense in this modern age.
"Somebody like Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie — a third of them was Lil B and Danny Brown energy." That’s why it was fire," he told GRAMMY.com in May. But his latest, Animals, also shows how the relationship between jazz and rap can be mutually beneficial.
On "Ready to Ball," Kassa’s wry musings about the music industry ("I need a contract with a couple zips and a full fifth / just to tell the truth at the pulpit / that this is all just bulls—") is a grounding force, amid a searching piano and skipping percussion. Those few seconds feel instructive, showing how rap doesn’t always need to make tidy loops out of jazz’s improvisational nature, in order to thrive.
Prior to Let’s Start Here., two-time GRAMMY nominee Lil Yachty was already pushing hip-hop’s boundaries. While declaring himself the "King of Teens," the actual teen’s take on rap was initially irreverent, helping make the SoundCloud generation an easy target for classicists. It was only after his 2017 debut album, Teenage Emotions, that Yachty concerned himself with establishing goodwill within the genre — whether by mixtape-length tributes to Midwest hip-hop, or by writing and producing for City Girls, Drake and 21 Savage.
Yet according to Kevin "Coach K" Lee, co-founder of Lil Yachty’s label Quality Control, Let’s Start Here. is the album that Yachty has always wanted to make: A psychedelic rock coming-of-age journey, as inspired by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and with help from Chairlift, Mac DeMarco, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, among others. "He had been wanting to make this album from the first day we signed him. But you know — coming as a hip-hop artist, you have to play the game," Coach K told Billboard.
Questlove said that he needed 24 hours to process Yachty's "departure record." But the explanation the Roots bandleader was looking for can be found in "WE SAW THE SUN!"’s outro, where Yachty samples painter Bob Ross. "Just let your imagination run wild," Ross says. "Let your heart be your guide."
In the early 2010s, McKinley Dixon had to perform with a live band in order to get stage time. Otherwise, his sets would get cut short, because music venues figured that "rappers are not seen to be as interesting unless they have a band," Dixon says.
These days, though, incorporating live instrumentation and taking inspiration from other genres is a vital part of McKinley's creative process and how he adds gravitas to his storytelling: "My music is me watching Death Note with Red Hot Chili Peppers playing over it," he told PAPER.
Meanwhile, in "Sun, I Rise," Dixon features a wandering harp ambling over the song’s lush jazz-rap arrangement. "OG slap the back of my head / said ‘Stop f—ing around / You only fall when you think you smarter than those / shooting you down.’" Dixon raps. This underscores the journey ahead in his new album Beloved!, Paradise! Jazz!?, an exploration of how Black boys come of age amid forces that implore them to grow up even faster.
Seven years ago, right as Princess Nokia was establishing herself as a hip-hop artist to watch, she had genre-bending visions for her artistry that even startled The Guardian’s head rock and pop critic Alexis Petridis. "I will happily be GG Allin of the hip-hop world," she said, referencing the biggest degenerate punk music has seen.
The music references in her latest, 2023’s i love you but this is goodbye, aren’t nearly as hell-raising. But, with how the album shifts from pop-punk ("closure") to jungle ("complicated") and cyberpop ("the fool") in its first three tracks alone, expanding hip-hop’s boundaries remains how Princess Nokia celebrates her autonomy. That’s not just as an artist this time, but as a maturing woman learning that a romantic relationship was never meant to complete her. Even ‘90s R&B-rap throwback "happy" gets that point across, with how her hook interpolates "Clint Eastwood" by Gorillaz: "I’m useless, but not for long / the future is coming on."
Photo: Jason Koerner/Getty Images
Lil Yachty Wants You To Be "Ready For Everything" At The Field Trip Tour
As Lil Yachty hits the road for his 42-date global tour, the rapper details how he'll be bringing his trippy album 'Let's Start Here' to life — and why he feels like his seven-year career is only just getting started.
Fans first got to know Lil Yachty for his catchy, sing-songy tunes like "One Night" and "Minnesota," rap songs that sound like the rapper's once-signature red braids: bright and attention-getting. But as the man who once dubbed himself the "king of the teens" has now become a father in his (gasp!) mid-20s, his musical horizons have expanded.
While Lil Boat is still making catchy tracks (see his minute-and-a-half long earworm "Poland," released last fall), his latest album is something else entirely. Inspired by big statement LPs like Pink Floyd's 1973 classic Dark Side of the Moon, Lil Yachty's Let's Start Here is a psychedelic record created with members of Chairlift and MGMT, as well as Mac DeMarco, Alex G and a handful of other out-of-the-norm collaborators. While the style change may have been unexpected for many, it came out exactly as Yachty envisioned it.
"It felt future-forward, it felt different, it felt original, it felt fresh, it felt strong," he says. "I'm grateful for the response. It's nice to have people resonate with a body of work that you've worked so hard on and you care so deeply about."
Yachty's most recent release, a four-song single pack featuring the swirling "TESLA," brings him back to a more traditional hip-hop style — by Lil Boat standards, anyway. But even with the four new tracks sprinkled throughout the set list, he's still determined to share the sound and vibe of Let's Start Here with his listeners.
The Field Trip Tour, which Lil Yachty kicked off in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 21, brings the album's trippy vision to the stage. The rapper recruited an all-women band for his latest trek, which includes Lea Grace Swinson and Romana R. Saintil on vocals, Monica Carter on drums, Téja Veal on bass, Quenequia Graves on guitar, and Kennedy Avery Smith on keys.
"My life is surrounded by women," Yachty explains. "I feel like they are the most important aspect to this world and that they don't get enough credit or shine — especially Black women."
GRAMMY.com caught up with Yachty as he was on his way to rehearsal to chat about the tour, the album, and what he learned from four old British guys.
You made your band auditions public by announcing them on social media, which is not the usual way of going about these things. When you had the auditions, what was it like? How many people showed up?
Hundreds of women came from all over. People sent in auditions online. It was so fun to hear so much music and see talent and meet so many different personalities. I felt like Simon Cowell.
Other than musical ability, what were you looking for?
It was nothing more than talent. There would be multiple people with extreme talent, so then it became your own creative spunk: what did you do that made me say, "Oh, okay. I like this. I like this"? I wanted a badass group.
What was behind the decision to put the call out for women only?
My life is surrounded by women — my two assistants, my mother as a manager, a lot of my friends are women. Women really help me throughout my day.
I just think that women are so powerful. I feel like they rule the world. They are the most important aspect to this world and they don't get enough credit or shine, especially black women. So that was my aura behind it. I just wanted to showcase that women can shred just as good as men.
Is the band going to be performing on your older rap material as well, in addition to the album cuts?
No. I'm not a big fan of rendition rap songs. I think the feeling is in the beat, the feeling is in the instrumentation. When you have to reconstruct it, the bounce gets lost a bit.
Tell me about the rehearsal process once you selected the band members. What was that like?
They're all so talented, so they all learned it very quick. I gave [the music] to them early, and gave them the stems. When it was day one, they all knew the songs. Even my new guitarist that came in later than everyone, she came in knowing the music.
The rehearsal project for this tour was a little different, because I'm reconstructing the whole album. I'm moving everything around and changing all the transitions and trying to make it trippy. So it's a process of me figuring out how I want to do things. But they're so talented and so smart, all I have to do is tell them what I want, and they'll do it instantly.
Like yesterday, I wanted a solo on the end of a song called "The Alchemist." Because at the end of [the album version] is this [singer Brittany] Fousheé breakdown and she's singing in a falsetto. But I took her vocals off and I wanted a solo. And [a band member] was working through it yesterday and it wasn't quite there. But I'm on the way to rehearsal now, and I know when I walk in this room, it'll be done. It'll be crazy. So they all take it very serious and they care, and I love them so much.
The festival shows you've done so far have had everyone in Bantu knot hairstyles, sometimes with face paint. Is that going to be the look for this tour?
No, I don't think so.
What was the thinking behind that look?
I was getting really deep into the world of '70s bands, '60s bands. Just unison: moving as one, looking like one, feeling like one. A family, a group, a team. You see us, we're all together.
When you play rap shows, so much of what you're doing is keeping a high-energy mood—getting the crowd going, starting mosh pits. With the new songs, it's about a diversity of feelings. What was that like for you as a band leader?
I'll tell you, it was not easy. I've been in this industry for seven years, and my shows have been high-energy for seven years. So the first time I went on a stage and performed Let's Start Here, I felt like, "Oh wow, they hate me. Do they hate this?" Plus I have in-ears, so I can't hear the crowd cheering. I don't perform with in-ears when I do rap shows.
It took me some time to get used to the switch. Tyler, the Creator once had a talk with me and explained to me that, it's not that they don't f— with you, it's that they're taking it in. They're comprehending you. They're processing and enjoying it. That clicked in me and I got a better understanding of what's going on.
What is it like in the same show to go from the Let's Start Here material to the rap stuff?
It's a relief, because that's going to my world. It's super easy for me. It's like flipping the switch and taking it to the moon.
Now that it's been the better part of a year since Let's Start Here came out, how are you feeling about it? What sense do you have of the reaction to it?
Since before it came out, when I was making it, I always felt so strongly because it was something that I felt inside. It felt future-forward, it felt different, it felt original, it felt fresh, it felt strong.
I'm grateful for the response. It's nice. It's not what you do it for, but it is extra credit. It's nice to get that love and to have people resonate with a body of work that you've worked so hard on and you care so deeply about.
Have you felt peoples' reactions change over the past few months?
Well, this is the first time when people are like, "Man, that album changed my life" or "It took me to a different place." People love my music — always have — but this reaction is, "Man, this album, man, it really took me there."
It did what it was supposed to do, which was transcend people. If you are on that side of the world and you're into that type of stuff, it did its job, its course — the same course as Dark Side of the Moon, which is to take you on a journey, an experience.
What was it about Dark Side that grabbed you?
Everything. The cover, the sounds, the transitions, the vocals, the lyrics, the age of Pink Floyd when they made it. I could go on. I got into deep fascination. It was so many things. It's just pure talent.
I've read that you studied Pink Floyd quite a bit, watching interviews and documentaries. What were some of the things you learned from that process and brought to Let's Start Here?
So many things. The most important element was that I wanted to create a body of work that felt cohesive and that transcended people, and that was a fun experience that could take you away from life.
I was curious about the song ":(failure:(," where you give a speech about failing. What were your inspirations for that?
At first I wanted [":(failure:("] to be a poem, and I wanted my friend to say it. We tried it out, but his voice was so f—ing deep. And his poem was so dark — it was about death and s—. I was like, Damn, n—, lighten up. But then I was just like, you know what, I'll do it, and I'll speak about something very near and dear to me, which was failure. I felt like it would resonate with people more.
Sometimes I feel like I'm growing so fast and getting so old, and maturing and evolving so quickly, and so many opportunities come into my life. You go on tour, and then you start working on an album, and you run out of time to do certain things. It's like, "Are we going to be together? If not, I have other things to do."
I think that's where it comes from. I don't have all day to play around. Too many things to do. Then it transpires to feel like I'm running out of time.
I love "drive ME crazy!" I was wondering if there are any particular male/female duets that you looked at as a model when designing that song.
Fleetwood Mac. Again, with all the inspirations for these songs, I still did my twist on them. So I don't want people to go and be like, "Oh, that sounds nothing like a Fleetwood Mac song." I wasn't trying to copy a Fleetwood Mac song. It just inspired me to make a song in that feeling, in that world.
When you began your career, you were the "king of the teens." Now you're a father in your mid-twenties. Who's your audience these days? Is it the people who were teens when you started your career, who are now in their 20s like you, or is it a new crop of teenagers?
I think now it's from the 12-year-olds to the 40-year-olds. My last festival, I had 50-year-olds in my show. That was so amazing. In the front row, there was an 11-year-old asking for my sneakers, and then in the back, it was 50- and 60-year-olds. It was crazy. The age demographic is insane.
Whenever I'm leaving somewhere, I like to have the window down and see people. [At my last festival] these 60-year-olds were leaving. They're like, "Man, your album, we love it. That show was so great." And that's awesome, because I love [that my music can] touch everyone.
You've been opening your recent shows with "the BLACK seminole." What does that phrase mean to you? How does it relate to the sound of the song and the rest of the lyrics?
It's saying, "I'm a warrior, I am a king, I am a sex symbol, I am everything good and bad with man, and I'm Black, unapologetically." That's what it's about.
Any final thoughts about the tour?
Just that it's an experience. You're not walking into a rinky-dink [show with] some DJ. This is going to be a show.
I feel like it's the start of my career. I just want people to come in with an open mindset. Not expecting anything, ready for everything.
Photo: Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
10 Albums That Showcase The Deep Connection Between Hip-Hop And Jazz: De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Kendrick Lamar & More
Hip-hop and jazz are two branches of Black American music; their essences have always swirled together. Here are 10 albums that prove this.
Kassa Overall is tired of talking about the connections between jazz and rap. He had to do it when he released his last two albums, and he has to do it again regarding his latest one.
"They go together naturally," he once said. "They're from the same tree as far as where they come from, which is Black music in America. You don't have to over-mix them. It goes together already."
Expand this outward, and it applies to all Black American musics; it's not a stretch to connect gospel and blues, nor soul and R&B. Accordingly, jazz and rap contain much of the same DNA — from their rhythmic complexity to its improvisational component to its emphasis on the performer's personality.
Whether in sampling, the rhythmic backbone, or any number of other facets, jazz and rap have always been simpatico; just watch this video of the ‘40s and ‘50s vocal group the Jubilaries, which is billed as the “first rap song” and is currently circling TikTok. And as Overall points out to GRAMMY.com, even jazz greats like Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie had “Lil B and Danny Brown energy.”
De La Soul — 3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
Featuring samples by everyone from Johnny Cash to Hall and Oates to the Turtles, their playful, iridescent, psychedelic 1989 debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, is the perfect portal to who Robert Christgau called "radically unlike any rap you or anybody else has ever heard,"
3 Feet High and Rising consistently ranks on lists of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. In 2010, the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry.
A Tribe Called Quest — The Low End Theory (1991)
If one were to itemize the most prodigious jazz-rap acts, four-time GRAMMY nominees A Tribe Called Quest belong near the top of the list. Their unforgettable tunes; intricate, genre-blending approach; and Afrocentric POV, put them at the forefront of jazz-rap.
There are several worthy gateways to the legendary discography of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White,, like 1993's Midnight Marauders and 1996's Beats, Rhymes and Life.
But their 1991 album The Low End Theory, was a consolidation and a watershed. From "Buggin' Out" to "Check the "Rhime" to "Scenario" — featuring Busta Rhymes, Charlie Brown and Dinco D — The Low End Theory contains the essence of Tribe’s vibrant, inventive personality.
Dream Warriors — And Now the Legacy Begins (1991)
Representing Canada are Dream Warriors, whose And Now the Legacy Begins was a landmark for alternative hip-hop.
King Lou and Capital Q's 1991 debut eschewed tough-guy posturing in favor of potent imagination and playful wit. Christgau nailed it once again with his characterization: "West Indian daisy age from boogie-down Toronto."
Its single "My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style" samples "Soul Bossa Nova" by 28-time GRAMMY winner Quincy Jones — who, among all the other components of his legacy, is one of jazz's finest arrangers. The tune would go on to become the Austin Powers theme song; in that regard, too, Dream Warriors were ahead of their time.
The Pharcyde — Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde (1992)
All of Black American music was fair game to producer J-Swift; on the Pharcyde's classic debut Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, he sampled jazzers like Donald Byrd and Roy Ayers alongside Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and more. Over these beds of music, Fatlip, SlimKid 3, Imani, and Bootie Brown spit comedic bars with blue humor aplenty.
"I'm so slick that they need to call me, "Grease"/ 'Cause I slips and I slides When I rides on the beast" Imani raps in "Oh S—," in a representative moment. "Imani and your mom, sittin' in a tree/ K-I-S-S (I-N-G)."
All in all, the madcap, infectious Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde is a pivotal entry in the jazz-rap pantheon. One reviewer put it best: "[It] reaffirms every positive stereotype you've ever heard about hip-hop while simultaneously exploding every negative myth."
Digable Planets — Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (1993)
Digable Planets' Ishmael Butler once chalked up the prevalent jazz samples on their debut as such: "I just went and got the records that I had around me," he said. "And a lot of those were my dad's s—. which was lots of jazz." It fits Digable Planets like a glove.
"Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" contains multiple elements of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' "Stretching"; "Escapism (Gettin' Free" incorporates the hook from Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man"; and "It's Good to Be Here" samples Grant Green's "Samba de Orpheus. Throughout Reachin', Butler, Craig Irving and Mary Ann Viera proselytize Black liberation in a multiplicity of forms.
Pitchfork nailed it when it declared, "Reachin' is an album about freedom — from convention, from oppression, from the limits imposed by the space-time continuum."
Gang Starr — Daily Operation (1992)
In the realm of Gang Starr, spiritual consciousness and street poetry coalesce. Given that jazz trucks in both concepts, it's a natural ingredient for DJ Premier and Guru's finest work.
One of their first masterpieces, Daily Operation, contains some of jazz's greatest minds within its grooves. "The Place Where We Dwell" samples the Cannonball Adderley Quintet's "Fun"; Charles Mingus' "II B.S" is on "I'm the Man"; the late piano magician Ahmad Jamal's "Ghetto Child" pops up on "The Illest Brother."
Throughout their career, DJ Premier and Guru only honed their relaxed chemistry; jazz elements help give their music a natural swing and sway. (Their musical partnership continues to this day; Gang Starr is releasing music this very week.)
The Roots — Things Fall Apart (1999)
Three-time GRAMMY winners The Roots' genius blend of live instrumentation and conscious bars launched them far past any "jazz-rap" conversation and into mainstream culture, via their role as the house band on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon."
Elements of limbic, angular jazz can be found throughout their discography, but their major label debut Do You Want More?!!!??! might be the most effective entryway into their blend of jazz and rap. ("Silent Treatment" features a bona fide jazz singer as a guest, Cassandra Wilson.)
Whether it’s the burbling "Distortion to Static," or the jazz-fusion-y "I Remain Calm," or the knockabout "Essaywhuman?!!!??!", venture forth into the Roots' discography; they're a hub of so many spokes of Black American music.
Madlib — Shades of Blue (2003)
As jazz-rap connections go, Madlib's Shades of Blue is one of the most pointed and direct.
Therein, he raids the Blue Note Records vault and remixes luminaries from Wayne Shorter ("Footprints") to Bobby Hutcherson ("Montara") to Ronnie Foster ("Mystic Brew," flipped into "Mystic Bounce"). In the medley "Peace/Dolphin Dance," Horace Silver and Herbie Hencock's titular works meet in the ether.
Elsewhere, Shades of Blue offers new interpretations of Blue Note classics by Madlib's fictional ensembles Yesterday's New Quintet, Morgan Adams Quartet Plus Two, Sound Direction, and the Joe McDuphrey Experience — all of whom are just Madlib playing every instrument.
In recent years, Blue Note has been hurtling forward with a slew of inspired new signings — some veterans, some newcomers. Through that lens, Shades of Blue provides a kaleidoscopic view of the storied jazz repository's past while paving the way for its future.
Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
While hip-hop has had a direct line to jazz for decades — as evidenced by previous entries on this list — Lamar solidified and codified it for the 21st century in this sequence of teeming, ambitious songs about Black culture, mental health and institutional racism.
"Kendrick reached a certain level with his rap that allowed him to move like a horn player," Overall told Tidal in 2020. And regarding Lamar’s present and future jazz-rap comminglings, Overall adds, "He opened up the floodgates of creative possibilities."
Kassa Overall — Animals (2023)
The pieces of Overall's brilliance have been there from the beginning, but never had he combined them to more thrilling effect than on Animals — where jazz musicians like pianists Kris Davis and Vijay Iyer commingle with rappers like Danny Brown and Lil B.
"I would rather people hear my music and not think it's a jazz-rap collage," Overall once told GRAMMY.com. "What if you don't relate it to anything else? What does it sound like to you?"
When it comes to the gonzo Danny Brown and Wiki collaboration "Clock Ticking," the Theo Croker-assisted "The Lava is Calm," and the inspired meltdown of "Going Up," featuring Lil B, Shabazz Palaces and Francis & the Lights — this music sounds like nothing else.
Over the decades, Black American musicians have swirled together jazz and rap into a cyclone of innovation, heart and brilliance — and there’s seemingly no limit to the iterations it can take on.
Photo: Patrick O’Brien Smith
Kassa Overall Breaks The Mold And Embraces Absurdity On New Album 'Animals'
Kassa Overall was put on the map due to a reductive narrative equation: "jazz plus rap plus mental health equals me." On his new album, 'ANIMALS,' the unclassifiable artist simply asks listeners, "What does it sound like to you?"
Kassa Overall holds his phone aloft, and rolls his eyes back in his head.
He's playing the intro to his track "Going Up," featuring Lil B, Shabazz Palaces and Francis and the Lights, which had dropped that day. A cello drone gives way to a strange woodblock part; a chopped-up drum solo jaws at everything — then it's as if Ableton freezes. Flanked by synths and sequencers, Overall seizes in his chair, as if he's being sucked into a black hole.
"You know the part where Neo gets kicked out of the Matrix?" the GRAMMY-nominated rapper, drummer and producer tells GRAMMY.com via Zoom. "It's like that, but when you get spit out, you actually get spit out in the bush in Africa."
That 20-second intro took Overall a long time to get right, but it's one of his favorite moments on his new album, ANIMALS — which arrived May 26 on Overall's new home, Warp Records.
The conversation has turned to the concept of absurdity — a helpful lens through which to view Overall's art. It sure beats the one that hamstrung him in the past, when he did interview after interview after interview about the intersection of jazz and rap — with mental health thrown in for good measure.
"I've talked about this for two albums now," he told GRAMMY.com in 2021 with a hint of exhaustion. "I ran that cycle in my head. I'm not so much trying to prove the point anymore that these things can go together. I just want to make the dopest s—."
The joy of ANIMALS is not in that genre fusion, but Overall's swelling boldness and vividness as an artist — as well as its novel fusion of seemingly disparate collaborators. Try to find another record where you'll find jazz-adjacent pianists Vijay Iyer and Kris Davis next to singular rappers like Danny Brown and Lil B.
"The reason the jazz world feels a little bit dry and s— is because there's not really the space for absurdity," Overall says. "Somebody like Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie — a third of them was Lil B and Danny Brown energy. That's why it was fire."
On ANIMALS, Overall rose to the energetic occasion. The album is consumed with subjects like his uneasy relationship with ambition, and his relationship with his growing audience. On tracks like lead single "Ready to Ball," the Nick Hakim and Theo Croker-featuring "Make My Way Back Home," and the Vijay Iyer-assisted "The Score Was Made," Overall has bigger fish to fry — than where rap does or doesn't connect with jazz.
Read on for an interview with Overall about his latest career moves, bucking tired narratives and using collaborators as instruments — much like a certain embattled rap innovator.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I was just thinking about the SHADES series yesterday, actually. I was thinking about the process of making that versus making a solo record, and I realized they're actually a lot more connected than people might think.
When I make my own music, the process of it is still sample chopping — whether I'm chopping up original music, or chopping up some Nirvana, you know what I mean? Oftentimes, my original music includes collaging from other sources.
The SHADES thing was like me going, Let me actually deal with the sample practice. I missed the idea of taking some s— and flipping it. So, that was really a lot of fun.
I think SHADES 3, the third in the trilogy, was kind of a new direction for me, because I started actually using drum machines. The series started with more of me on the laptop, locked down in COVID, chopping up this and chopping of that. For this one, I had an actual studio behind me.
The lockdown is over, so I'm not so much in the headphones. So, if you listen to SHADES 3, it's more house tracks and s— like that. For me, it was just a good experiment. Although I made beats and used sample sequences, I never really got into step sequences, and those kinds of drum machines.
I'm a novice at that; I'm brand new at that. So, that's been a lot of fun.
The last time I interviewed you, you seemed to be trying to wrestle out of the reductive narrative around your music. You're dealing with more important subjects on ANIMALS. Where are you at in your career, through the lenses of public messaging and your signing to Warp?
Thank you for pointing that out first, because that'll allow me to not have to repeat things I'm tired of repeating.
Just to recap what you're saying, historically, jazz and rap often equals corny. I've never wanted to be corny, and I don't think I've ever been corny. It just happens to be the things that I say — where I come from. It's not so much like, I'm gonna do this.
And then the mental health s— is more like, I've just gotten comfortable talking about my life. Just like with any writer — you could be a writer for years, but it could become years until you become comfortable talking about your perspective and your ideas. If I'm just talking about the things that affect me a lot, that has to be a part of it. You can't not talk about it, but it was more like, I want to get past that.
I think that putting the album out on Warp is a bit of messaging in itself, because I've been making this music that I don't consider to be that weird. My music is not weird compared to Aphex Twin or Squarepusher, you know what I mean?
It's a fresh take on electronics and organics, you know what I mean? It's unique, but it's not that weird. I came up through the industry I came up in. So, I'm trying to get booked in jazz clubs and play jazz festivals, and they're looking at me like, "Not under my banner!"
If you listen to the state of jazz, or different playlists on the various streaming platforms, they sound a lot different than when I first started putting music out. People were like, "Whoa, what is this? Is this your pop product? This is your pop album, right? How's your pop s— going?"
That's what my homies used to say — my jazz friends. "He plays good — like, he's a killing drummer, but he's also got this pop s— he do."
Your work doesn't resemble any pop music I've ever heard.
Nah, nah, But there's a drum machine of sorts. There's a clap that's not organic. There's vocals. [Laughs.] It's pop!
The first time I noticed was when I did a guest mix for BBC, which came through Tom Ravenscroft. He got hip to the album through Bandcamp; he had no idea who I am or what I am.
That's how I started even doing the SHADES stuff — when I got the opportunity to do guest mixes, I would do remixes to kind of double down. It's like a double word score of like, Yo, he's doing some extra-different s—.
So, they were like, "Producer Kassa Overall does a guest mix." And I noticed that it's the way you present something; people are listening to it differently. If I present an album as a jazz drummer, then it's some pop s— where I'm trying to sing or something.
But then when it's presented as a producer thing, people are automatically like, "Oh, word. This is, like, electronic music. It's cool. We know where to put this."
My biggest influences are unique artists — unique people who made things that are kind of their own genre, whether it be Thom Yorke, Radiohead, Björk. Even Kanye; at a point, it was rebranding the whole idea. Like, "I'm a producer — no, I'm a rapper!" "You have a gangster image!" "No, I'm wearing skinny jeans and a pink polo!"
Then, even someone like John Coltrane, somebody like Bob Marley — obviously, these are the biggest artists in their fields, but they're also people [where] whatever they're making, you didn't really know what it was before it kind of popped in.
So, I would rather people hear my music and not think it's a jazz-rap collage. What if you don't relate it to anything else? What does it sound like to you?
The thing about the last album with Brownswood [Recordings, 2020's I THINK I'M GOOD]: I was like, "Bro, so many songs I'm making that y'all are considering to be B-sides would work well next to a Frank Ocean or James Blake record."
Maybe it's a little too poppy for Brownswood's audience, but f— Brownswood's audience, you know what I mean? But there's a million people over here that don't even know what a Nord or a Rhodes is, and they f— with what I'm doing.
So I think that's the frustration I've dealt with. I'm just a dude making songs about my life. That's all it is.
Kassa Overall. Photo: Patrick O'Brien Smith
Was it a difficult process to find a post-Brownswood home that was conducive to what you want to do?
No, it was very easy. And shouts to Brownswood; I'm not saying "F— Brownswood." That's the homies. [Label founder] Gilles Peterson is still a big supporter of what I'm doing. I'm just saying moreso my image and branding — if you want to make it seem like I'm this organic Afro-bop type, it's not gonna really sell. My s— is way too sad boy.
Somebody from Warp hit me up after I THINK I'M GOOD came out and asked me to make some beats for Danny Brown. Actually, they asked me if I had some beats. I was like, "Bro, give me two weeks," and I made three beats for Danny Brown; he picked two of them.
And then, that same A&R came back around and was like, "Yo, I think you should touch some other tracks on the album and 'Kass out' the whole album." So, I added all sorts of little drums and vocal throws — different things to give my little texture.
I ended up working on four joints total on Danny's next record — and fully producing one, which is one of the singles, but it sounds like a Kass kind of thing. So, that relationship started, and we chop it up on music stuff regularly.
When I started getting ready to shop for my next record, it was kind of like, "Y'all want to do it?" and [Warp] was like "Hell yeah."
I could have signed somewhere else and gotten more money, but the branding would be the same "What is this?" type of thing. I think Warp has the history of electronic music, and they have artists there now — it tells a story of what I'm doing, in a good way. I fit into the thing.
You came up in the jazz scene, and your relationship with ambition weighs heavily on ANIMALS. What is it about that world that lends itself to a hyper-competitive, rise-and-grind spirit?
I think it's the displacement of a cultural home. I understand what you're talking about — jazz, self-help, motivational. There's so many connector cables there, and I'm guilty of it all.
As a jazz musician, you have to learn how to practice. Like, I'm gonna practice all day, and the gigs are gonna come, and you're damn near doing, like, affirmations, and then you go sit in at Smalls. It's not like a doctor goes to school, and then applies, and it's an actual, visible track, The music thing is very pie-in-the-sky.
If you think about self-help as its own branding and industry, a lot of jazz musicians are susceptible to that kind of rhetoric. Because it's like, this person is huge, this person has nothing, and they're almost equally talented. One of them grinds his ass off; the other one drinks.
The other thing — this might be a little darker, a shadow thing — is one thing that happened with jazz is colleges. Once jazz became this academia thing, that's the student industry. That means you have jazz musicians turning to students as a means of sustainment.
That's not really the culture of the music. The music isn't really rise-and-grind. The culture is not even about success. People like Jimmy Heath expressed this to me: it wasn't popular.
It's popular now, or it looks like it. A Love Supreme is this huge thing, right? But if you listen to Elvin Jones interviews and stuff, he talks about playing in these clubs, and there's, like, six people there. Four of them are waiters, and people were not trying to hear that noise.
The idea is that you're going to choose this music that's not really designed for mass appeal, but the motivation is mass appeal. It's kind of a conflicting direction. That's not to say it can't work; there's a lot of people making it work.
But we're all screwed a little bit. It might not just be a jazz musician thing, and it might not just be a musician thing, but we're all kind of in this place of Work, work, work, work, work, work, work, work, and who works the most wins.
I don't want to live like that, and I find myself in that position at times. I'm going like, Something's got to give eventually. It's supposed to be more of a spiritual thing — a practice.
Kassa Overall. Photo: Patrick O'Brien Smith
You mentioned Kanye; I love the way he seemed to use collaborators as instruments on Donda. I get that same feeling from ANIMALS.
It's funny you say this. When I started working on this record — we're talking about 2019, even, some of these joints — I always pick a couple of albums to compete with. That's kind of one of my secrets. The last record was <a href="https://www.grammy.com/artists/calvin-broadus/14274">[Snoop Dogg's] Doggystyle and <a href="https://www.grammy.com/artists/2pac/7233">[2Pac's] All Eyez on Me. And this record was Dark Twisted Fantasy.
I haven't said this much in interviews, because I don't want to be like, "Kassa Overall drops album dedicated to Kanye!" [Laughs hard] But he was a huge influence on my process.
You have these long-ass songs. It's an open-ended beat. And however many minutes [into Dark Twisted Fantasy], Rick Ross comes in. Or you have Paul McCartney working on the melody. That was the inspiration behind this. If you listen close to a lot of the sonics, you'll hear, Oh, this is in conversation with that production process.
A musician like Kris Davis, for example. An absolute weirdo. You sit down and talk with her — so stoic. Who she is in itself is an anomaly. And then the music she makes is so unique.
Somebody like her would never cross paths with Danny Brown, who's equally strange. Even just his voice; he was a weirdo in his world. He was signed to G-Unit. He came up in Detroit, street rap adjacent, but when he popped off by kind of busting out of that and embracing more of the weirdo myths of his art. He's a standout in his own space.
I look at those two artists as people that actually have more in common than you would think. They're similar because they're very different in their own spaces. I think the world that Danny Brown lives in is better with Kris Davis in it. And I think the world that Kris Davis and Vijay Iyer are in is better with Lil B in it.
Mary Lou Williams
Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Listen: Close Out Jazz Appreciation Month 2021 With GRAMMY.com's Playlist - 40 Tunes For The Rest Of The Year
Jazz Appreciation Month may be wrapping up, but listeners can bring that energy into the rest of the year—one where the music needs our support more than ever
It's International Jazz Day, but many of its greatest musicians haven't worked in more than a year. Jazz Instagram is a cornucopia of hawked Zoom masterclasses. Many of the most beloved, irreplaceable physical spaces are gone—possibly forever.
What's the answer to getting more listeners on board? Maybe it's to make it less of a history lesson—and communicate that you can turn up Charlie Parker next to your favorite rock, rap or R&B song. You don't need accreditation. You don't need a college degree. You don't need to read a manual. It just sounds good.
GRAMMY.com is closing out Jazz Appreciation Month with a playlist of 40 tunes to bring into the rest of 2021. It's not meant to be remotely comprehensive; how could a playlist without Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong or the Art Ensemble of Chicago possibly be? Ignoring time and space in favor of (hopefully) uninterrupted enjoyment, it's simply the product of one unbroken train of thought.
Check out the annotations below, and you might get a sense of how one track connects to the next—whether by the musicians involved, the historical context or simply the vibe. But that's it. If you want to dig deeper, there are countless books, websites and documentaries on offer. But maybe simply enjoying the music is the first step.
GRAMMY.com's Jazz Appreciation Month 2021 playlist is available here via Spotify, Amazon Music and Apple Music. If you like any of the tunes below, click the album title to buy the record and support them or their estate directly.
Without further ado, let's enjoy the music.
- Charlie Parker, "Just Friends" (Charlie Parker With Strings, 1950)
In some ways, this is the only place to start. The greatest saxophonist of all time plays an improvised solo of jaw-dropping elegance, intelligence and integrity. "It's absolutely perfect on both an artistic and technical level," alto saxophonist Jim Snidero told Discogs in 2020.
- Lou Donaldson, "Blues Walk" (Blues Walk, 1958)
The alto saxophonist got friction early on for sounding too much like Parker, but more than carved out his own sound with masterpieces like "Blues Walk." At 94, Sweet Poppa Lou is still kicking—and totally cops to the associations. "I'm a copy of Charlie Parker," he said in the same article.
- Champian Fulton, "My Old Flame" (Birdsong, 2020)
Who played the most beautiful version of "My Old Flame" the world ever heard? That's right, Bird's your man—and the exquisite jazz singer Champian Fulton knows it. She's a fan of both Donaldson and Parker; her recent album Birdsong is a luminous tribute to the latter.
- Jim Snidero, "Autumn Leaves" (Live at the Deer Head Inn, 2021)
After months of no gigs during the COVID-19 pandemic, Snidero and his quartet played safely and socially distanced at a jazz hotspot in the Delaware Water Gap. Despite the low-key setting and setlist of standards, he showed that chestnuts like "My Old Flame" "Autumn Leaves" still have new dimensions to explore.
- Helen Sung, "Crazy, He Calls Me" ((re)Conception, 2011)
Pianist Helen Sung is connected to Snidero by at least two degrees: she and bassist Peter Washington have both played with him. Her entire body of work is worth spending time with; 2018's Sung With Words is an exceptionally well-done merging of jazz and poetry.''
Make no mistake: alto man Cannonball's only Blue Note album is a drop-dead must-have album. "Is that what you wanted, Alfred?" his sideman, Miles Davis, growls at producer Alfred Lion at the end of "One For Daddy-O." (Certainly, it was.)
- Miles Davis, "Freddie Freeloader" (Kind of Blue, 1959)
Er, you want this album too. Trust us.
Jimmy Cobb, who sadly left us in 2020, was the drummer on Kind of Blue, and you could set an atomic clock to his ride-cymbal hand. Cobb also plays on this Wes Montgomery masterpiece. Even though Montgomery couldn't read music and strummed exclusively with his thumb, he arguably remains the king of jazz guitarists.
Well, actually, it's either him or Jim Hall. (The ever-ethereal melodist Evans is also in the running for Kind of Blue MVP.)
Lage not only played with Jim Hall; the jazz world widely regards him as the Jim Hall of our generation. Not bad for a 33-year-old.
The guitar genius arguably made even better records than Bright Size Life, but as an entryway to his approach and thinking, nothing beats his ECM Records debut. (On bass: Jaco Pastorius!)
- Grant Green, "Idle Moments" (Idle Moments, 1964)
Another guitar god, playing his pianist Duke Pearson's slow-crawling masterpiece. The musicians were unclear as to whether each chorus should be 16 or 32 bars, thereby beautifully blurring the composition. The results are a must-play for your next long drive and long think.
- Miguel Zenón & Luis Perdomo, "Cómo Fue" (El Arte del Bolero, 2021)
Or, "The art of the bolero," or, "Two guys soothing themselves during lockdown with traditional songs they've known all their lives." Despite its low-key presentation—it was a Jazz Gallery livestream the altoist and pianist decided to record—this was one of the most captivating duo records in recent memory.
- Avishai Cohen & Yonathan Avishai, "Crescent" (Playing the Room, 2019)
ECM comes up for a reason; if you're not familiar with the ultra-prolific label, go to their website, find something with a blanket of snow or raindrops on windows as the cover, and chances are it's drop-dead gorgeous. And speaking of stellar duet albums, here's another, between the Tel Aviv-born trumpeter and the Israeli-French pianist.
- Craig Taborn, "Abandoned Reminder" (Daylight Ghosts, 2017)
Deeper we tread into the realm of ECM: Everything this brilliant pianist has made is worth hearing at least once. (Especially his Junk Magic project's latest album, Compass Confusion, which is not ECM and not jazz but is terrifying.)
The Harvard professor and pianist surveys the volatile landscape of 2021 with the radiant rhythm section of bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. (GRAMMY.com cited both Oh and Sorey as artists pushing jazz into the future.)
- Linda May Han Oh, "Speech Impediment" (Walk Against Wind, 2017)
One of the most prodigious modern bassists and composers, Oh made GRAMMY.com's list of five jazz artists pushing the form into the future. That's her on the Iyer tune, too, along with the drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey.
Everybody should know this brilliant pianist and composer; Iyer is possibly the most prominent figure promoting her work these days. (He recently wrote an academic paper about Allen; "Drummer's Song" from Uneasy is hers.)
In a just world, we'd regularly breathe Mary Lou Williams' name along with Ellington's and Armstrong's and her multidimensional masterpiece Black Christ of the Andes would be taught in schools.
- Alice Coltrane, "Turiya and Ramakrishna" (Ptah, the El Daoud, 1970)
In recent years, Coltrane has received wildly overdue reappraisal as her husband John's artistic equal. Still, only one album has seemingly been allowed into the canon: Journey in Satchidananda. But as more than a dozen musicians attested to GRAMMY.com in 2020, Ptah deserves a seat at the table, too.
- Lakecia Benjamin, "Syeeda's Song Flute" (Pursuance: The Coltranes, 2020)
Understanding that fundamental truth about the Coltranes, alto saxophonist Benjamin made the communal and devotional Pursuance: The Coltranes, which pays homage to both artists equally. (This is a John tune, but she found Alice before him.)
- Keyon Harrold, "Bubba Rides Again" (The Mugician, 2017)
The celebrated trumpeter Harrold shows up to jam on Benjamin's album, and his album The Mugician is a terrific gateway into the crossover world where jazz, rap and R&B blur.
- Kassa Overall, "Please Don't Kill Me" (I Think I'm Good, 2020)
Speaking of crossover: Kassa Overall is one of that sphere's very best. Understanding that jazz and rap are more similar than dissimilar, he opts not to blur them but crash them like cars, knowing the wreckage will look the same.
- Joel Ross, "More?" (Who Are You?, 2020)
This sublime vibraphonist (who appears on the previous Overall tune) is right on the front lines of the scene in 2021. Don't sleep on him or his elegant last album, Who Are You?.
- Jackie McLean, "'Das Dat" (It's Time!, 1964)
But if you really want to get into the heritage of jazz vibraphone, Bobby Hutcherson is the first man to know. Check out his performance on alto sax heavyweight J-Mac's It's Time!, which got an excellent pressing last year via Blue Note's Tone Poet Series.
Here he is again, performing Herbie Hancock's intoxicating tune with Hancock himself. (For Hancock's part, he's one of the most inventive harmonic thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries.)
The astonishing young pianist Joey Alexander met Hancock at the GRAMMYs when he was only eight. "He didn't say too much," he recalled to GRAMMY.com in 2021. "He thought I could play and he said, 'Keep doing it' and 'Don't stop.'"
- Jaleel Shaw, "The Flipside" (Optimism, 2008)
A.n excellent alto saxophonist, Shaw appears on Alexander's previous single, "SALT." "I was glad that Jaleel and [guitarist] Gilad [Hekselman] played in unison and sounded so strong," Alexander marveled in the same interview. "When I heard it back, I was like 'Wow.'"
- Rudresh Mahanthappa, "I Can't Get Started" (Hero Trio, 2020)
On an alto-saxophone kick? Mahanthappa has one of the boldest, brashest and most vibrant sounds on the instrument in 2021.
- Matthew Shipp, "Swing Note from Deep Space" (The Piano Equation, 2020)
Now, we shift gears to the solo piano; Shipp is one of the most prodigious modern improvisers in that realm. (The label that released The Piano Equation, TAO Forms, is one of GRAMMY.com's labels to watch in 2021.)
- Thelonious Monk, "Don't Blame Me" (Palo Alto, 2020)
More than a half-century ago, Monk played at a high school and a janitor recorded it. Nobody heard the slamming results until Impulse! released them in 2020.
These days, the "bebop" pioneer Diz might be more revered and analyzed than listened to. But he was a tremendous trumpeter throughout all seasons of his life—as attested to by this duo album with piano giant Oscar Peterson.
Need further proof? Check out the ultra-prolific Douglas' loving tribute to the clown prince of jazz.
- Jakob Bro Trio, "Copenhagen" (Bay of Rainbows, 2018)
The connection to the Douglas album is the ultra-perceptive drummer Joey Baron. Danish guitarist Bro's sets at Jazz Standard (before they shuttered their physical location thanks to COVID) were transformative experiences, as captured on this ECM recording from the New York venue.
Honestly, it just felt right to blow up the program in a volley of toms.
- Sonny Rollins, "Tune Up" (Rollins in Holland, 2020)
We're at the final stretch. Newk killing on a Netherlands tour.
- John Coltrane, "Mr. P.C." (Giant Steps, 1960)
"P.C." is bassist Paul Chambers, who left us too young. That's all the backstory you need. Turn this up like a Led Zeppelin song.
- Ralph Peterson, "Freight Train" (The Art of War, 2001)
Rest in power to Peterson, a ferocious drummer and sweetheart of a man who left us in 2021. Last year, he summed up his mentor, Art Blakey: "He's in the blue part of the flame," Peterson told GRAMMY.com. "The thing is: if you know anything about fire, the blue part of the flame might be the lowest part of the flame, but it's also the hottest part of the flame."
Now, we turn down the burner. "I'm going to play it until there's no need anymore," Frisell said in a statement about this civil-rights anthem.
- Oded Tzur, "Can't Help Falling in Love" (Here Be Dragons, 2020)