How Do We Solve a Problem Like BBNG?

Most times when you see me, I will be wearing a hat. I don’t have nearly as many as I’d like, but I certainly have quite a few. Lately, I’ve been switching between a nice rotation of fedoras and drivers caps, typically worn backwards. The fedoras are a relatively recent thing but otherwise, yes, I’m a black man constantly trying to channel Samuel L. Jackson. (He’s a Morehouse Man, too. Can you blame me?) My Kangol has sort of been my thing for many years (for the better part of a decade, really).

So in my last year at Morehouse, when a school administrator told me to remove my hat while having a meal in the cafeteria, I got a little incensed. I could go at length about the history of hat etiquette and my subsequent strict adherence to it but I have a tendency to write too much anyway, but trust me, I’m detailed. Anyway, I was so upset about this administrator that I took to my column space in the opinions section of The Maroon Tiger. My column that week said this administrator was “a man who may possibly destroy the future of this institution of which I have grown quite fond.”

Through some odd rationale which would be improprietous for me to say, the piece made it to print and I had to have a meeting with the editor-in-chief, the managing editor, and the faculty advisor who read that sentence aloud and asked me, “When you read that, what do you think?” I replied, “Frankly, I’m glad I didn’t end that sentence in a preposition.” I was young, short-tempered, a smart alec, and I was just learning that my words have weight. In some ways, I still am a more moderate version all of these things, but I grow older and I get better at what I do. I learn over time and I am tempered by my experiences. I can’t help but think about my own youthful impetuousness (a mere five years ago) when I think about some kids in Toronto whose new album I like.

BADBADNOTGOOD do not hate Robert Glasper. This is apparent from their sampling him in the outro of their first album, BBNG. Their ideas about playing music relevant to the audience to which they appeal is the same. It’s a generation removed, but it’s the same. It’s accomplished with nowhere near equivalent level of skill, but the spirit of the idea is the same.

To be honest, right now it would seem that Robert Glasper is the main influence of jazz students at this time as Brad Mehldau was when I was 20. Right now, the thing is Dilla breaks; in my day, it was ostinatos. Of course these young guys playing jazz music are into Robert Glasper; they weren’t into Glasper’s latest album, Black Radio, and judging from some of the reviews I’ve seen around the jazz blogosphere, other critics have been befuddled by it as well.

This is understandably so (and one of the few times in the course of this column in which I will admit race is actually a factor), as I have said in the past, Glasper’s melding of hip hop, R&B, jazz, and rock elements have perplexed many a genre purist but the sound is nothing new with anyone familiar with the black radio format. If Al Green had swung by that L.A. studio that week of recording, Michael Baisden could have just played that whole album front to back during evening drive time and no one listening would have bat an eye but they would be certainly more entertained than usual during rush hour traffic. But the mere fact that you had to click on that hyperlink I posted so you could know who Michael Baisden was sort of proves what I mean about those knowing about the black radio format.

If you know what Glasper is doing, what he’s doing is quite brilliant. If you don’t, you could either love it solely for its musical merits or be turned off by the discomfort felt by all that he’s mixing together. From the apologies in their Twitter feed, it would seem this is was the intention of BBNG’s rather terse statements and that fine context was missing in the now infamous NOW Toronto feature. They didn’t get the album. Meh, that sort of sucks. I think it’s pretty great and it’s fighting neck and neck with the Vijay Iyer Trio’s Accelerando for best jazz album of 2012 so far status. Not everyone’s going to like everything (as my need to spend a column on this can clearly attest [although, it’s not like I wasn’t fishing for a topic this week anyway]).

On the subject of these guys being disrespectful because of racial boundaries, I’m finding it a little difficult for that idea to hold water. While I generally find the black roots of jazz music to be rather important, I also find it akin to the one-drop rule. Yes, jazz is historically a black music, and yes, BADBADNOTGOOD’s approach to jazz appropriates hip-hop tropes (Even though I consider them more punk rock than hip hop since their style of play [as I noted concerning the first half of their latest album] is simpler, much like punk music, and they encourage moshing. No one moshes at a hip-hop show; there’s too high a risk of messing up somebody’s sneakers and that’ll ruin the whole night.). This is nothing new.

The comparisons I made in my review to artists like Jason Moran, Marco Benevento, and Miles Davis had everything to do with the ideas being the same, not necessarily technical skill. Besides, this is a group of music school dropouts with an average age of 20, of course their technical skill isn’t up to par yet. And yes, Kris Bowers should be heaped praise for his youth and crossover appeal (happy birthday, by the way), and last I checked, the recent Thelonious Monk competition winner and Watch the Throne sessionist is receiving high praise. Accolades aren’t some sort of zero-sum precious resource. But when it comes to the idea that these three are spitting in the face of the black trailblazers before them, this seems more incidental than anything else. The notions of white privilege are there, this is true, but are we really to expect white Canadians suddenly stepping to the mic to already implicitly understand this concept (something with which grown folks have trouble grappling)?

If anything, the racial aspects of their music is incidental. Please recall the main inspiration of this group: Odd Future– they for whom blackness is almost incidental (Although they do get to say the N-word unbleeped on their new Cartoon Network sketch comedy show, Loiter Squad. I haven’t heard an unbleeped N-word on television since The Boondocks.) Tyler, the Creator and Co. seem to epitomize youth more than blackness, teenage angst and immaturity more than racial struggle.

If race is indeed a factor with them, it’s all part of The House that Kanye Built (or really for Tyler, it’d be Pharrell Williams [happy birthday to him, too, by the way]). Without Kanye, mass culture’s notion of a new idea of blackness might not have manifested in this middle class form at such a scale. Kanye West’s influence in popular culture changed the notion that street cred is necessary in hip hop and that you can become a respectable rapper/producer even if your mom had a doctorate in English. Without Kanye, Drake couldn’t lament at length on his albums, Donald Glover couldn’t be Childish Gambino, and a bunch of weird kids from California would never be given this much attention.

The zeitgeist had to be softened before this to the point that their race, while still nowhere near negligible, is increasingly becoming more of a side note. So in that being the baseline, yes BBNG are fledgling performers in a historically black artform that takes on aspects of another historically black artform but after we keep moving away from that pure black core (at least for this specific example), does it really matter anymore?

So now we’re left with the question of what are we to do with Matt, Chester, and Alex. Ultimately, we aren’t going to do anything. Their new album received 20,000 downloads on the first day. They’re playing Coachella next week. They played two nights at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards (remember to tune in to BBC Radio 6 this Saturday for his triumphant return, by the way) this past January.

Whether or not the jazz scene cares for them, they’ve got an audience. And much like I’ve said about our smooth jazz bretheren, we really can’t keep pretending these guys don’t exist, we can only hope their work can improve. 2/3rds of this group are no longer receiving a formal music education. That’s okay, there are plenty music school dropouts out there with respectable music careers (funnily enough, Quincy Jones immediately comes to mind, who was historically only a decent trumpeter but travelled with the right folks and had an amazing ear for talent, production, and arrangement; sound familiar?). If these three have found the curriculum of Humber unfulfilling, they’re going to have to learn those same skills with on-the-job training, so perhaps they’ll spend some time figuring it out while backing Frank Ocean a couple weekends this month in California.

And in a more simple ideal, what is this lamentation supposed to accomplish? Do we expect them to quit making music? When Terry Teachout declared jazz to be dead in 2009, did we as a community roll over or did we feel he was talking a bit out of pocket and kept changing and innovating in different ways– musician, critic, and fan alike. When Nicholas Payton made the same claim last December, we continued as a community to make, promote, and support the music we like, no matter the name. So what are we trying to say about BADBADNOTGOOD in this case? Should they stop making music? Return to a school where they felt they didn’t fit in? Or maybe they should continue to act like young musicians and keep playing, learning, growing, and get better.

I’m in their corner, and the backlash I’ve faced over the last two days for my rather objective review of their latest work (which was most certainly not all praise, mind you) only solidifies my stance that a bunch of young guys who have real fans and dynamic stage presence that actually draws crowds are decent can one day be pretty good. Why not stand behind that? If there are others out there around the same age but with greater skills, why not stand behind them as well? I’m a fan of a lot of music as this site can attest. Hell, I’m a fan of a lot of music of varying genres as my SXSW missives and my profile can attest as well.

This is one band of many that I happen to like. I have liked some before and I will like some others after them. It is my hope that those in the industry who bash their heads on the wall about what to do to reach an audience would take a little of what BBNG is doing, a little of what ERIMAJ is doing (when are we getting that album, yo?), a little of what Esperanza Spalding is doing, and whatever other ideas some may think are good and find what works for them. BADBADNOTGOOD shouldn’t be heralded as jazz’s saviors, but they should at least be acknowledged as some kids with some pretty decent ideas, as I’m sure we all were when we were 20. Let’s let them revel in that for a while.

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