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Toronto's BadBadNotGood balances hip-hop production with original work

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TORONTO - On Danny Brown's world-weary lament "Float On," the Detroit MC sighs about the pressure of making music, rapping: "I'm trapped in the beat, stuck on every line; nothing else matters, except my next rhyme."

Toronto experimental jazz trio BadBadNotGood produced the song's crystalline beat, though it's unlikely they could relate to the sentiment of Brown's long-grinding angst. After all, their short run in the music industry has been nothing short of charmed.

Tuesday will see the release of "III," a third collection from the band — whose members Matthew Tavares, Chester Hansen and Alex Sowinski range in age from 22 or 23 — and it signals a forward leap in production technique and songwriting.

Last year, the trio managed to produce two hip-hop songs, which happened to merit inclusion on two of the most critically beloved albums of the year: Brown's "Old" and Earl Sweatshirt's "Doris." They've backed Frank Ocean at Coachella and jammed in a basement with Tyler, the Creator. Now, they're ensconced in work on the sort of marquee project that can only be referred to in giddy off-the-record whispers.

And to hear the band tell it, opportunities such as these were mere merry accidents.

The unusual beat for "Float On"?

"That was totally haphazard," Tavares marvelled.

"It was a really random thing," Hansen agreed.

How about the quicksand weed haze of Sweatshirt's "Hoarse"?

"That was the first beat we ever sent out," Sowinski said. "That situation was great, because we sent it to him and he's like: 'Cool. I'm going to write to this.'"

Even long-established hip-hop producers will toil on beats that go nowhere, or that end up in scraps on the cutting-room floor.

So, to what do BadBadNotGood attribute their ongoing hitting streak?

"I don't think we've figured out any formula," Sowinski replied. "Our music, our beats. ... We still don't know what we're doing, really. We're trying to figure it out."

On the other hand, freestyle spontaneity has been working out swimmingly so far.

They are trained improvisers, after all. The trio met back in 2010 as pupils of Humber College's jazz program. All musically dexterous, all in love with hip hop, they became friends and soon, jam-session co-conspirators. What followed has the serendipitous whiff of music-industry mythology: an early jam collaboration centred on the L.A. hip-hop collective Odd Future failed to impress their jazz performance instructors, but a YouTube upload caught the influential attention of rapper Tyler, the Creator.

"Dave Brubeck Trio Swag," he tweeted back in spring 2011, calling the performance "sick."

That video has been viewed more than a half-million times since, and certainly you'd be hard-pressed to find a recent jazz recording that has so captured the Internet's ephemeral attention.

Their first self-released (and self-titled) recording was issued months later, in September, and was composed almost entirely of covers — of the likes of Nas, Gang Starr and Joy Division. The band created that debut after only a handful of jam sessions and, in referencing the recording, they can't resist putting scare quotes around the word "album."

"We weren't, like, a band. We weren't tying to make an album or anything," Hansen said.

They expanded their scope on "BBNG2," which featured an increasing number of original compositions comfortably slipped alongside celestial interpretations of such broad-ranging fare as Kanye West's "Flashing Lights" and My Bloody Valentine's "You Made Me Realize."

Those devious re-workings were an easy entrypoint for listeners usually unaccustomed to the wordless, genreless head-knocking journeys BadBadNotGood otherwise knocked out. Still, circumstances more or less beyond the band's control — a lengthy search for a new recording space and the natural accumulation of live experience — led to a situation where BadBadNotGood had hoarded a heady amount of original material.

So it is that "III" represents the band's first all-original work. It's eerie, tuneful, spectral stuff, fusing jazz fundamentals with hip-hop thump and cinematic scene-setting.

They arrived at most of these songs through extensive jamming. Asked to pinpoint the difference between writing these complete-thought compositions and sketching out beats intended as table-setters for rappers, the members of BadBadNotGood are at a loss. Hansen points out that in making rap productions they need to be careful not to occupy too much space, but otherwise there's no blueprint.

Their best-known beats were borne from entirely different circumstances.

In the case of "Hoarse," a horse's errant "neigh" captured on sampler while the band hung out at a ranch in Orangeville, Ont., became a pitch-shifted jewel in an ever-changing beat built on shoegaze guitar, off-kilter synths and a mercurial drumbeat. It was sent to Sweatshirt as more or less a finished product and he rapped over it.

With Brown's "Float On," only Tavares (typically on keys) and bassist Hansen played on the song, while Sowinski served as executive producer. They spontaneously came up with the song's narcotic daydream melody and, quite different from "Hoarse," the resultant track is "all loops, basically."

Brown, apparently, was thrilled with the beat, and the song (featuring British electropop sensation Charli XCX) is positioned as the haunting closing track on the Detroit rapper's intentionally schizophrenic opus (which, according to review aggregator Metacritic, was the 26th-best-reviewed album of 2013, with Sweatshirt's "Doris" tied at No. 32).

"At the time, everyone was just sending (Brown) super hype beats. As crazy as possible, you know what I mean?"

In other words, BadBadNotGood stood out. Both "Hoarse" and "Float On" sound little like anything else on those records.

Either way, their batting average for hip-hop is preposterously, Ted Williams-high, and they know it. Most hip-hop producers craft and refine beats constantly, Sowinski notes, but his group "is the opposite."

"We make one beat every month," he said. "And we're normally like, this person would sound really cool on this. Then we forget to send it out because we're just busy."

That casualness belies BadBadNotGood's youth in a way that their tightly performed music doesn't. In person, the trio is charmingly ebullient. Where many bands opt for dramatic press shots, Sowinski reviews a recent group picture and urges the photographer to choose a photo where the band is smiling, lest they look like they take themselves "too seriously."

Fortune has certainly smiled on this band. But that enthusiastic haphazardness is tempered by real diligence, and that mix of dumb luck and hard labour is hardly the most radical mashup BadBadNotGood has conjured.

"It's been a combination of a million things," Tavares said when asked why the band has been successful. "Probably luck. A lot of hard work too. When we first met there was a lot of luck, because we were goofing around. We were jamming, not even playing any shows.

"Now, we always meet up, seven days a week, we're rehearsing, we're on the road, responding to emails, shipping out T-shirts. It's weird how it changes as time goes on."


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