In 2017, Kassa Overall was caught between two worlds. In one, he was a prolific jazz drummer, mentored by Elvin Jones and Billy Hart and known for his session work with the likes of Geri Allen, Vijay Iyer, and Terri Lyne Carrington. In the other, he was a backpack rapper closely linked with Das Racist and Kool A.D and penning odes to “Mac and Cheese”. “I would do a show and people would come knowing about me from the rap stuff, and they'd show up and I'm wearing a suit” he explains over our recent Zoom call from his New York City residence. “And they're like, ‘Yo, this is dope. But I didn't even know you did this!’ And then vice versa, somebody would see me playing drums and then go check me out on the internet, and I’m smoking weed and cussing. It wasn't that I was being phony in either of those situations. There was just a firm separation between the two, and I could tell that it was causing a blockage in the flow of my creative career.“
“And it was like, ‘Man, I need to bring everything together.’”
Gil Evans once said “jazz has always used the rhythm of the times. It’s nothing new for jazz to use popular rhythm – that’s the only kind of rhythm jazz has ever used.” As Overall’s artistic ambitions developed, the popular rhythms of contemporary hip-hop served as a vehicle to bridge his two musical identities. “I remember doing a show at C'mon Everybody in Brooklyn. It was a solo show where I had drums. But I had Ableton [Live]. And I had loops on pads and things like that. It was the first time I really mixed everything together. Like, I had a Future instrumental, and I did Future's rap on the drums as the drum licks. Then I put some rap a cappella over some jazz joint. It was just these little experiments. I took a big drum solo. I rapped a little bit. There was electronics involved. And I remember my homies that would come to my shows were like, ‘Yo, this is it.This is you!’"
Overall commemorated this new artistic approach with his 2018 release Drake It Till You Make It, which saw Overall littering covers of Drake, Snoop Dogg, and Ye (Kanye West) songs with flourishes of jazz drum breaks and horn solos stitched together with his alt-rap sensibility. Overall harnessed hip-hop’s most popular artists – the “rhythm of the times” – to break down the separation between his two musical worlds and create a new future for his sound.
Overall would further develop his unique marriage of jazz and hip-hop with 2019’s Go Get Ice Cream And Listen To Jazz and 2020’s I Think I’m Good. Both albums feature a compositional approach – dubbed “backpack jazz” by Overall – wherein he interprets the spontaneity of his jam sessions with New York City’s finest players through the fast-paced, sample-driven approach of modern hip-hop beatmaking. Armed with a microphone, an interface, headphones, and a laptop running Ableton Live, Overall would bike across the city collecting recordings from his friends in their homes. “Sullivan Fortner has a Steinway in his living room, and I just put this mic right up on the Steinway
We sat down with Kassa Overall to discuss his approach to music-making as a multi-instrumentalist whose work blurs the lines between jazz, hip-hop, and IDM. During our conversation, he revealed his recording techniques, his approach to translating his productions into live performances, and his views on the relationship between the electronic and acoustic elements in his music.
I want to start by addressing your work as an instrumentalist. In preparation for this interview, I came across a lot of press releases about your work. I noticed you’ll usually be described as “a drummer, an MC, and….” And there’s always a third thing that's something like, “a laptop artist”.
Yeah. That's one of the worst ones.
Or “electronics specialist”, which doesn’t totally seem right either.
It's funny. I actually just got the Electronics Specialist Award from the Jazz Journalist Awards. So yeah, I'm an electronics specialist for now.
SHADES OF FLU 2: IN THESE ODD TIMES - Kassa Overall’s second COVID-themed collection of jazz remixes
Do you view the laptop as an instrument? Do you think of your work in that domain as equivalent to your work on more traditional instruments?
I don't think that electronic and acoustic is the proper Yin and Yang anymore. You could make an album of all acoustic instruments, and it could sound like Squarepusher, in the sense that the source material is all acoustic. So then it's more like we have to think about a different way of breaking them up. It's almost like they're all part of one thing, and there's different parts of the process. Like, if I write a song in a notepad, it's not a "notepad rap”. It's just a rap.
I'm looking at the drums right now. That's a meditation, religion, spirituality. I practiced the drums. I practiced them for the betterment of my career, of course, but it's also a practice, like yoga or meditation. Playing the acoustic instrument creates vibrations that come out of the wood that you feel in your body. There's a whole other kind of spiritual level for me with that. So that will always be what it is and that will always be a part of my life. I think you could take away all the electronics and we can always go back to just making vibrations out of stuff. It's like fire and wind. But I think that the idea of electric versus acoustic is almost outdated. It's more fluid.
We don't need the binary anymore.
We don't need the binary for that one. Like, the Rhodes is like somewhere in between, you know, so what about the Rhodes?
I definitely identify with that. People call it “electronic music” but we don't generally call it “acoustic music” or “guitar music” or “piano music”. It seems kind of silly to have that being the defining element.
Yeah and also, The Beatles were electronic music.
They were, absolutely.
So then you're getting into aesthetics more so than facts. Like, you have a lot of music today that sounds acoustic, but they're using MIDI drum loops. And it sounds totally acoustic – and it's not – but aesthetically it sounds like it. So at that point, pfff, who cares?
It's almost a parlor trick at that point.
At that point, it's a con.
I want to discuss your approach to recording. You've used the term "backpack jazz" to describe your mobile recording technique of recording jam sessions with different musicians around New York City and then going back to the studio to assemble those recordings into songs. What kind of gear are you bringing with you? What are some of the challenges you face recording people in less than ideal environments?
Before COVID hit, that’s when I was really biking to everybody's house and doing this. I had the Apogee Duet and the Apollo. And I would show up to people's cribs with my interface, my laptop, headphones and a KSM44 by Shure. And I would use that mic to record anything. Sullivan Fortner, the pianist, has a Steinway in his living room. And I just put this mic right up on the Steinway, or, you know, record vocals, record anything. The other thing is, at this point, most musicians have some kind of rig at their house. So a lot of times what I would do is just hack into their rig.
Do you have an idea for what you want recorded before you go into these sessions? How much of your process is going in with a specific idea of what you want versus jamming, improvising and figuring it out later?
Well, I think it's a little bit of both, and it depends on the stage. A lot of the jamming, coming up with stuff, that will happen in an actual studio. We’ll be in a studio with everything and just creating and going crazy. And then I'll go to my crib and I'll spend months or a year working on this thing and creating it into a song. Then I get it to a certain point [before I] start going to everybody's house and be like, “Yo, I need bass clarinet right here. I need this. I need that.” And I get super specific.
Do you feel like this approach allows you to create musical ideas that you wouldn't normally be able to create if you were just writing on your own?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, all of my songs are cold compositions. Like, there's part of my compositional process that has collaboration in it. There's this thing from… I think it's from Think and Grow Rich. He said if you can find somebody that can do the job better than you can do it, then you should have them do it. I spent many years making beats, playing drums, working on raps, that kind of thing. But, if it's piano, I want to get somebody that's really about that. Even if I know what I want, I want them to be like, “Nah, we need this chord instead.” I think I'm really good with the final pass. I'm an editor. I think at the end of the day, a producer is an editor.
How do you go about taking your finished studio work and then translating that into the live performance?
Well, I'll say this. Everything takes time, right? Like, you got to do a lot of stand up comedy before you're good at it, I’ve heard. I've been bringing my laptops and having cats playing to click tracks and launching scenes and all of this stuff for years now. And for a long time, I was doing it in [live] situations where it didn't really make sense. The speaker system was not set up properly for the 808s when they dropped or whatever. But I did it every week to develop that language in the live setting. At the end of the day, I come from this jazz musician lineage. So when I get up on stage, I'm trying to create. I came to play, I came to open up.
So I say that to say, it's not a pop gig. I try to maintain the spaces for improvisation because, the thing about the studio recordings is that half of what people like is that they can hear spontaneity and they can hear improvisation within these frameworks. And so if I just get on stage and we just recreate the improvisations from the record, it's not going to have that texture.
And so what I try to do is figure out ways to trigger bits from the records. Certain songs we may play like a pop song in terms of, like, play all the exact parts. But there are always spaces for that spontaneous improvisation to work within the framework so that you still get that feeling of, like, this could fall over. If it feels like, “oh, yeah, I know exactly what he's going to do.” I'm trying to hang on to that thing where you could go hear Elvin Jones every night, and every night it'd be a whole new vibe. And by Sunday, you're damn near a devotee.
I think improvisation and spontaneity is almost like the portal to the higher self. If you believe in all that. But then also... the tool kit is from the pop world. So we got click tracks, and we got cues, and we have somebody with a Push triggering loops. Currently, Paul has a DJ mixer as well, which is like, we got tracks, we got loops, but we also have the mixer so we can even manipulate the backing track with the crossfader and the effects and the glitches and the…. You know what I'm saying? That's just the newest thing that we're doing. But every few gigs we're introducing a new thing or taking something away because we're trying to get a new thing going, and that keeps it fun for us at least.
How big of a band are you working with right now?
Right now it's a quartet. Me, Paul Wilson on keys, DJ, including the vocal, like the DJ hype man vocal energy – he got a Cowbell and a ride cymbal. Then we have a percussionist playing congas and shaky things. And then we have a keys player that's playing legit keys, whether it's like Rhodes or Nord or whatever and then he also has a bass synth. So it's basically like drums, vocals and electronic keys. I’m very happy with the sound currently. There’s room, because when you have all electronic keys in tracks, the only acoustic thing coming through is drums and vocals. And if you think about how that translates into a crowd, it's like there's a lot of space. It's not a lot of competition between the drums and a grand piano or horns or whatever you're dealing with.
You come from two different rhythmic disciplines, as a drummer and as an MC. Do you think about rhythm from the perspective of a drummer first or the perspective of a lyricist? Do you feel like those perspectives are in synergy with each other, or is there ever conflict between those ways of thinking about rhythm?
Kassa Overall - I Know You See Me (Feat. J Hoard & Melanie Charles)
I studied hand drums. I studied Djembe and West African drum and dance. So I went to Gambia to study for two weeks in college. And the thing is, you have the dundun player, and they're playing the bass parts. You play it with sticks and it has almost like a bass drum and a floor tom kind of sound. It's foundational. And then the other parts: you have the cowbell part, you have the accompaniment djembe parts, and then you have the lead djembe. And the lead djembe is talking to the gods, talking to the dancers, talking to the village. And it sounds like he's rapping! Literally, the beat lines up with Neptunes. The beat's lined up with Kanye's drums, and the lead djembe lines up with André 3000. The same phrasing, the same tension and release, the same melodic vocabulary.
So I guess what I'm saying is it's not really about drums or vocals. It is about the part you're playing within the African drum orchestra. So if you're playing a drum set, you might be coming in more like the dundun row. When that's your job, you can't be doing all that other melodic stuff. But at the same time, you might have a track where you got the 808 doing that. So on the drum set, you're gonna come in so the drum set can take on more of the role of the lead djembe. Most of the time, as a rapper, you're taking on the role of the lead djembe. But it’s more about these different roles.
The one thing about hip-hop and Black American music, American music, modern music: the foundation of it is a direct extension of the African drum orchestra. Yes, you have European instruments, you have pianos and you have things like that. But the way that they're being utilized is via the format of the African drum orchestra. So when you're talking about drums and raps – that’s easier than anything. You don't even have to go down the end of the block for that. That's all in the same block.
Keep up with Kassa Overall through his website, Instagram and Bandcamp
Photo credit: EBAR
Text and interview by Daniel Krishnan. Daniel is the founder of Program Change, a media platform dedicated to inspiring music-makers around the world.