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BADBADNOTGOOD and Art in College

I’d like to offer my thoughts to the conversation that’s blown up on social media over the young Toronto group BADBADNOTGOOD.

The debate isn’t the only thing to explode though,

-Gilles Peterson flew them to England to play the Worldwide Awards and is busy tweeting Questlove that they should do a collaboration

-they’re playing Coachella next week

-they’ve been interviewed in Vice

-they’ve been signed to The Agency Group

-they’ve PACKED their last two shows in Toronto, I went out to catch them with my own eyes and ears

-they have several youtube videos with hundreds of thousands of views

This past week they got the cover and an article in NOW magazine and stirred up a real controversy by dissing Robert Glasper, and their alma mater Humber College. Very quickly they’ve become the critical media darlings of jazz championed by the mainstream press while the jazz community has truly lashed out online insulting the band on their playing, music and views expressed in the interview.

They released their new album BBNG2 yesterday, it’s available as a free download on their website or you can stream it on their bandcamp. I’d recommend checking it out, especially if you want to engage in a discussion on the band. They’ve uploaded a cool little video yesterday with them hanging out and listening to a track off of the album and it has +62,000 in less then 24 hours. Check it out.

From a marketing standpoint I really need to give it up to these guys. BBNG is writing the book on how to succeed at social/viral marketing and knowing how to break a band right now.

-in the last six months they have released two albums, two live recordings and a single all for free download on their bandcamp

-they have an extensive youtube output, all filmed and mixed well with little creative intros or interesting graphic design

-they are doing strange instrumental covers of music that is just breaking into being mainstream but has a cache of being underground

-they are engaging the creators of that music, tastemakers and the general public extensively on Twitter

Lets look at this collaboration they did with Tyler, The Creator. I’m sure these guys were aware Odd Future was coming to Toronto soon. They know this guy lives on Twitter and is hungry to push his music while he is blowing up right now. Hindsight is 20/20 but they made an excellent business decision to film their take on his music.

One side note that has nothing to do with this article. I respect Tyler, The Creator for his fearlessness, his hard work ethic, and his interesting flow but I also feel that a lot of his success is in selling the worst stereotypes of black culture to a largely non-black audience that just eats it up.

The other thing I want to point out is that this isn’t getting lucky. Chance favours the prepared. I’m struck not only by their intelligence in marketing but also their hard work. Think of the countless hours filming, editing, mixing, rehearsing, uploading, tweeting, recording, rehearsing etc. This is work and these guys did it. The sheer output of BBNG should have most bands and especially jazz musicians embarrassed with how seriously they are taking their own careers.

Beyond marketing what really matters is that this band has hit a cultural nerve. Their music has obviously made a lot of people feel something strong. I think this is the purpose of music, to make something that can conjure emotions in people and I see that as a much more noble cause then say being technically good on your instrument or appealing only to other musicians.

Most of the criticism from Jazz musicians has been pretty weak, along the lines of “I know people who play their instruments better” or “I have Chick Corea records and he plays the electric piano better then Matt Tavares” or “They couldn’t even make it through jazz school”. Many of the artists that changed the world through music didn’t know the difference between a C and C# (they also don’t have a degree), Chick Corea would sound out of place in this band and he certainly hasn’t been making youtube videos with Odd Future, and a degree from any school means nothing when it comes to moving people with sound.

I haven’t seen a good definition of this band yet, likely due to the polarity of the scenes they’re being critiqued from. I don’t want to get into a “what is jazz” debate here but I will say yes these guys are definitely using elements from the genre of jazz. They sometimes are very slightly reminiscent of the similarly named The Bad Plus, and sometimes reference a few elements from 70’s jazz fusion. Sure the connection to Jazz is likely overstated, they are being defined by people who don’t understand the idiom (NOW magazine certainly) and they aren’t able to look that far past the instrumentation (piano trio).

The guys obviously have dug deep into Hip Hop, by their song selections and grooves. Earl the opening track on BBNG has a groove taken out of the 90’s underground. Something like this:

Still this is very different from what has been defined as jazz rap. The difference is that these are twenty year old kids who grew up in Toronto. They are incorporating their entire life experience into their music and there is a lot of indie rock and pop in there too. There are two James Blake covers on BBNG2, and it is accompanied with a booklet of photos that look like they were pulled from a Vice magazine. I’m struck by the DIY indie rock ethos that permeates their music, brand and online presence. This is reflected in the rawness and occasional unrefined moment in the playing, the fact that they’re giving all their recordings away for free, the images and weird graphic design, the involvement in recording/mixing/mastering their own music and the way the music is structured. Also their interest in hip hop is reflective of the musicians who’ve managed to break into the indie mainstream (Kanye and Odd Future).

They’ve managed to create a really interesting aesthetic by fusing a few of the elements of hip hop and jazz into a really indie rock product. This appeals to so many young people who are into both Odd Future and James Blake. There’s a reason Kanye West has Bon Iver on his albums. He understands the same aesthetic and it’s potential with a large audience. BBNG is the first group to touch on this in an instrumental band setting with elements of improvisation (some may say jazz, Peter Hum wouldn’t). The audience they’re hitting are exactly the people who would read NOW or Vice. It’s obvious why they would champion the group, it appeals to their market.

I really think BBNG2 sounds great. Thanks for making it available in 96kHZ, 24bit. It sounds amazing on my system at home. I would encourage everyone to try and listen to it with an open mind, formulate your own opinions and if you care to express them in comments on this blog, please do. I think someone looking at it as “mediocre jazz” is way off base and judging it for something it isn’t. To me the group has a very interesting original thing going for them and wish them the best.

On the bad words and controversy in the NOW article

The thoughts reflected in the interview certainly were caustic and controversial. While certainly their language wasn’t eloquent, controversy is a great way to get attention and get people talking. Look at how much discourse they’ve created, that’s a business success. I personally disagree with their take on Robert Glasper’s recent album Black Radio. Maybe he wasn’t trying to make something with balls. To me some of the greatest art happens when people but their egos aside and just make beautiful relaxed music, say like Kind of Blue. I’d put on Afro Blue off of Black Radio with Erykah Badu when I’m chilling with a girl, it’s absolutely beautiful, I can’t say I’d put on one of the BBNG mixtapes, but they’re obviously going for different things artistically. I do respect BBNG’s right to express their opinion on his disc though. This may have been the first time NOW covered anyone’s thoughts on a recent jazz release.

In terms of what they said about a certain post secondary institution this is a can of worms, and took balls to say. There are fundamental problems with our education system. From kindergarten on we’ve created a system that is about producing a unified product of people one like the other so they’re interchangeable at a 9-5 or at a factory. It’s a product of the  industrial revolution, Seth Godin calls them cogs. When you take a program of educating large groups of people the same way, but the subject matter is art, things get even more complicated.

The music program in question is surely the most progressive in this country by a long shot. A large portion of the faculty are actual involved in making art outside of the school and that’s a rarity. They’ve incorporated computer skills, recordings skills, and the language of “contemporary” music into the curriculum more then any other school in this country. With that said there are still issues with studying art at a post secondary institution. I had a solo performance class that was graded and adjudicated by a teacher who I’m not aware of having a solo performance of her own in the more then five years I’ve lived in this city. No wonder she wouldn’t have much helpful critical commentary on the performances.

The comment I disagree with most from the article is, “Most graduates are super-, super-good at playing traditional jazz,”. I believe it’s an incorrect use of the word traditional, they likely mean modern jazz, but no, only a handful of the students who graduate are super, super good at that. My opinion though is that’s the student’s fault not the school’s. In life you generally get out of something what you put in.

Art is created by leaders, linchpins, geniuses. After the fact people come along and analyze what they did and codify all the language and devices. It’s great I would say even fundamental to study the language that came before you but at some point you have to create your own art reflective of your life experience capable of communicating with other people. Charlie Parker may have said it best “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out your horn”. So while learning Charlie Parkers language is a great exercise, it definitely leaves us one step from self expression. Maybe that’s what music school is for, learning fundamental building blocks of musical language and some technique on your instrument. It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth when the purpose of learning these building blocks is to communicate something greater from our spirit (creating art) and that is almost totally ignored in an educational institution. People don’t care about the fundamentals of music they care if your voice is hitting them in a certain way that makes them feel something and that’s where BBNG succeeds.

BBNG I hear what you’re going for and think that it’s awesome you’re doing it. Don’t let the haters get you down. Only time will tell what success you’ll have but you’ve got so much momentum behind you now it’s going to be hard to stop. Also next time you talk to Gilles tell him to get back to my tweets. He put a tune of mine on his last album, he could send a little love too.

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  1. Matthew Tavares Matthew Tavares

    Thanks for the article man, I never thought that a couple remarks would create such an animosity against us from the Toronto jazz scene but its cool that people can see it from our side. I think the Ottawa Citzen thing kinda crossed the line.

  2. Hey Chris,
    Excellent article! I agree with you 100%. I checked out their music yesterday on their site, and definitely, they have a great thing going on both musically and business-wise,and I’m sure this is only the beginning for them. Let the haters hate but i’d be laughing my way all the way to coachella.

  3. Lavinia Lamenza Lavinia Lamenza

    I loved reading your piece. The language is precise and the thinking behind it is avant-garde. Here are my thoughts: It is really refreshing to see how GGNB has aggressively managed the online identity by harnessing the social media juggernaut in service of a strategic business goal: increased access to their music. That is more than a full -time job to make sure the interconnected parts behind the machinery of their online identity keep moving; it’s almost a feat of social engineering. I can’t help but get into a band that encourages me to download their albums easily and at no cost. After all, if I were Iiving in Sweden, I’d be put in prison for what and how I’ve downloaded. (I’ve heard the Swedish prison system is cutting-edge.) And I like GGNB’s music. I’m not so interested in how it’s categorized but it sounds jazz-influenced to me.

    But there is a hazard to being so imbedded in social media and that is that band members run the risk of enmeshing their online and offline identities. It breeds narcissistic self-absorption. Put another way, they assume every word they utter has high social valence, that is, their opinion and fact are one and the same. Or because they said something, it is must be true. Their attitude is grating, mildly put. I wrote them off based on what they were quoted as saying. And I only considered them based on your informed, written critique. It’s hard not to think GGNB band members are victims of their own hype.

    As for NOW Magazine, I stopped giving their music critics any credibility years ago. Peter Hum’s blog piece for the Ottawa Citizen however was well-grounded.

    There is one thing I take exception to: your brief assessment of our educational system. I was surprised Chris. Seth Godin is American. His expertise is in business, not education. American and Canadian educational systems have different histories, and most importantly, when you get to the post-secondary level, different funding structures. I can’t give a responsible opinion about the rest of Canada, but in Ontario, the elementary and secondary educational system works hard to meet the diverse needs of the individual student, for example, those of children and youth living in poverty, or Aboriginal students. It is true that subjects that typically get assessed like language arts, mathematics, and science have greater importance than non-assessed subjects like music, visual arts, and physical education or other facets of the curriculum such as speaking and listening. And the system is not without its problems, like boys have fallen behind girls. But students in the Ontario school system receive a variety of classes that are designed to keep them socially engaged, and most schools have introduced one or more progressive initiatives such as anti-racism and/ or anti-homophobia. Cogs? Our students are not. As for our colleges, they have done a superb job of filling the void for apprenticeship training all over Canada, and then much, much more. Music college may be different, I don’t know. Our universities have an international reputation. Why? Because they produce innovative thinkers who challenge the status quo. At university, I was exposed to some very cutting edge ideas in terms of gender and race politics, Latin American and Middle East politics, and also, music history from a non-Eurocentric perspective. It influenced me profoundly and I miss being there for it.

    So back to GGNB, I can’t help it, but when I hear youth like them mouth off like that about the educational opportunity they feel so entitled to dis, I think ‘white privilege’. Ugh.

    But I love this whole virtual discussion. It’s rich and refreshing. Thank you all, and above all, thank you Chris. It’s been great.

  4. The most balanced, level-headed article I’ve read on BBNG. I had actually given up on jazz shortly before discovering them. The genre seemed to me to have become stale, conservative and up it’s own arse – fusty museum music. BBNG are a breath of fresh air. Thanks for making jazz interesting again, guys.

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