Kassa Overall: Jazz, Hip Hop, Whatever Works, Just Let It Be

Kassa Overall stays busy. When the both of us could finally find the time to interview over the phone (mostly my fault over the past few months 1, but the timing seemed to have come together well), the former Seattlite-now New York drummer was just at the end of an interminable cab ride to the studio to practice for a session with Vijay Iyer and spoken word artist Mike Ladd for a project about American veterans of color curated at the Harlem Stage called Holding It Down. He had to get things “a little more buttery for the recording”. Of course, these are the things he’s tweaking about his craft when he’s not putting the finishing touches on his upcoming three hip-hop mixtapes with his girlfriend, Tecla Esposito, Das Racist member Kool A.D., and his own solo release that he’s dropping in the next few months, something he inadvertently prophesied years before, but he might be in Israel playing with Geri Allen’s band at the time for a one-off gig in that same window. Yeah, he’s got a lot going on, but it all fits together because Kassa Overall surrounds himself with creative, open-minded people who support what he does. These artistic planes where he simultaneously resides ensure that Kassa Overall stays busy, but Kass stays busy by just doing Kass.

To most people reading this blog, Kassa Overall should be on your attention foremost for his drumming work for the Geri Allen Trio. He’s been a part of the group alongside the innovative pianist with Kenny Davis on bass. Though the group performs live more than they record, a great chance to hear them is on Allen’s 2010 release, Geri Allen & Timeline Live. On top of playing with Allen’s group, Overall also plays drums with Vijay Iyer with his spoken word excursions with Mike Ladd. Iyer, Ladd, Overall, guitarist Liberty Ellman (Somi, Henry Threadgill’s Zooid), and others will appear on the upcoming live recording, Holding It Down, commissioned by Harlem Stage. “There’s different approaches, however they’re not necessarily genre based. Like for example, when I first got with Vijay, he was like, alright, so you’re playing along with the track and it has to be real precise… and you don’t have to play a lot… Less is more. It’s more of a minimal… approach. It’s kind of more of a little hip hop concept. But I can do that in any genre, you know what I mean, and I can also play hip hop in a more creative, improvisational approach. So it’s like there’s all these different approaches, but but they’re not necessarily like hip hop; jazz. ‘Cause I can play jazz a hundred ways; I can play hip hop a hundred ways. So it’s like, I think it’s actually partially my goal to kind of like broaden the grey area… It’s like an age of ambiguity in a weird way.

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A big reason why Overall is able to pull off all that he does in these fields is because of the support behind him. In fights (across all scenes) about genre purity, Overall has worked with people who have generally avoided the fray for the sake of making work for the pure sake of dopeness. “You have to be in a certain place to even realize where the genres are. There’s people in the rap genre that are… close-minded as well as in the jazz idiom [who are] super close-minded. The people I work with in those different genres are like the open-minded side of those people. Most of the people that I’m down with, that I play with, that I hang out with, they listen to all sorts of music and they’re not like close-minded. I try to be around people that are open.”

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But where Overall is focused lately is on his hip-hop game. In order to keep some sort of order with things, Kassa Overall is also known as Kass One when rapping. So when not playing one-off gigs with Iyer, Allen, and others around New York, he’s rapping alongside the likes of Kool A.D. of Das Racist. Right now, Kass is poised to release three mixtapes under this moniker over the next two months. The first mixtape, 1996, features Overall’s girlfriend — fellow singer, producer, and keyboardist Tecla Esposito (the two met while playing together with electro/funk/R&B singer Gordon Voidwell)– under the name Toothpaste and will use beats all from hits from 1996 from like from 2Pac, Biggie Smalls, and Ginuwine’s “Pony”. “I feel like to kind of show how… those beats were so sick back in the day and also, like, how much a song can be changed just with what the artist is doing. So we just kind of started messing around and it turned into something and we were just having fun at first.” Besides reminding all of us how many bangers came from that year, it’ll just be the capstone for the later releases– Kool and Kass, a duo mixtape with Kool A.D. (because Kass’ one-offs with Das Racist are entirely too satisfying) called Peaceful Solutions featuring beats from Kass himself, his brother Carlos Overall, Busdriver (!!!), and others; and finally will come Kass’ solo release which he’s been working on for three years prospectively titled Asparagus. “There’s a whole lot of things about to happen– a lot of paradigm shifts.”

Yet while this all may not sound like jazz in the least by now, the aesthetic of the genre is still quite there. The recording process with the guys of Das Racist has a very extemporaneous, freewheeling vibe to it that isn’t too far displaced from the living in the moment mentality of jazz. “…we were in the studio about two months ago a few times and just hanging out with this dude, every time by the time we started recording, I was already wasted, you know what I mean? I’m like passed out and they’re like ‘Alright, your turn!’ and I just jumped up and rapped. Everybody liked it but I was like, ‘yo, I don’t want to be that wasted’. So I came in the studio on my own like last week, I just came in and redid all my junk verses. It sounds a lot better than it did before… But that’s going against the grain of how we usually do it because it’s usually just like we just push record, you know what I mean?, one take and get out of there. Actually, honestly, recording with Kool A.D. and recording with Das Racist in general… has a jazz aesthetic because they’ll write shit and just record it… one take. Sometimes, they’ll just have concepts and just say them but… it’s like the rhythms that they use, it’s not really set. If they do have to do another take, if they do another take, it might sound totally different because then it’s not this rehearsed rap. It’s like real avant garde. I actually learned a lot messing with them like my approach to hip hop is more jazzy. My approach to everything is more like yo, just let it be. That first take in the studio is usually the realest one and just, like, go with it, you know what I mean? Don’t be too much a perfectionist.”

It took a while for Overall to reach the level of confidence to where he can feel the sort of freedom for him to play with his distinct style and disparate influences in all his endeavors, but also to make the claims that he has the best taste in shoes and the best hair in the jazz scene today. “I’m in the gym. I’m trying to be crispied up. I’m supporting crispy, 2012– I’m coming clean.” It would make sense, Overall’s approach on the drums is always focused on coming correct with a very definitive swagger. For it to come across in his attire and rapping, it would only make sense. However, keeping all this in balance is a bit of a challenge. “A lot of my friends think I retired from playing drums. A lot of them are like, ‘I never see you at the Fat Cat anymore. I just thought that you made it.’ And I’m like, okay, that’s cool, that works. But I still like playing drums more than ever. I’m still shedding. I’m still in the practice room. It’s just like everything takes a lot of time to develop…

“I really don’t feel that bad about [time spent away from the drums]. Back in the day, I used to really feel weird because I would start making beats and I wouldn’t touch the drums for a week and I’d just be like totally in a different place. But now, I feel like moreso today, my approach is different and everything works for the other thing. Like I play with Geri and if I’ve been playing a hip hop or an indie rock gig for a while, if I play with her, I bring something to her that’s like ‘Oh, okay, that’s different!’ She’s trying to get me to… start using laptops and samplers. So I’m trying to make it so I’m trying to develop a thing where it’s just like I can do me all the time rather than divide myself, you know what I’m saying? I’m trying to be the dude who plays drums and raps and produces and everybody knows about everything. Shit like that… It’s more of like a mission.”

It’s become a bit of a cliche to call certain musicians the “future of jazz”, but if the claim could be made about folks out there making this thing look cool, Kassa Overall should be one of the folks who come to mind. But much like the gradual realization that we all hopefully have that sometimes a lot of being cool is just not worrying about it, that principle right now is pure Kass, which makes him so interesting a figure to watch. “I used to feel like back in high school, or like middle school moreso, I used to feel nerdy for playing jazz. Like my homies wouldn’t come see me play jazz and I used to feel like a square, you know what I mean? Or, like on the other end, I would feel a little weird about rapping with a lot of cuss words like, ‘Who’s going to hear this?’ or whatever. Now I just feel like, ‘yo, I’m doing me, yo, whatever.’ I don’t really care what anybody thinks, really. As long as I can pay the rent and keep respecting myself, I’m good, yo.”

Besides Overall’s other gigs, be sure to check him out playing solo drums, triggering loops and playing in a trio on July 26th at the East Village’s The Stone as Geri Allen curates various shows there this month.

“Peaceful Solutions” by KOOL & KASS (Produced by Amaze 88) the title track from their upcoming mixtape

“Big Momma” by Toothpaste (Tecla & Kassa) feat. Big Baby Gandhi (Produced by Big Baby Gandhi) from their upcoming mixtape, 1996

1. Also my fault– my general glacial pace at writing profiles. Sorry about the delay, Kass, for real.