The most charming thing about BadBadNotGood is that the jazz-hop trio’s recent fame hasn’t hit them yet. The group has released its debut full-length album, toured Europe, worked with Ghostface Killah and Danny Brown, and met MF Doom in a bar without his mask on, yet these 21-year-old kids happily ride around the northeast in a packed-to-the-brim Honda Odyssey with Ontario plates. I don’t mean to say simply that they are modest like many great musicians, but they seem to still be in the “honeymoon phase” of their career. They are genuinely psyched to sit on the edge of the stage after a show and talk to fans, sign albums, and promote new tour posters handmade by their manager’s wife.
At last Thursday’s show at Glasslands in Brooklyn, the BadBad boys were eager to come into the crowd and catch a glimpse of the first opener, the Brooklyn-based Jerry Paper and his bedroom synth-pop project. Actually, they were probably the most keen listeners in Paper’s audience, watching as their friend crooned for the dance floor in his silk kimono and patterned green socks.
After Paper, Ian Isiah took the stage with an incomplete band, as his drummer, for an unspecified reason, couldn’t make it. Without his drummer, it seemed like the soul singer—strapped in white, thigh-high Hood By Air boots—could not perform much of his own music, presumably tracks from 2013’s The Love Champion. So, like any great student of late-90s R&B, he treated us with a slew of covers instead. I’ll let the tracklist speak for itself: D’Angelo’s “How Does It Feel”, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious”, Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good”, Tina Turner’s “Rolling On The River”, and Drake’s “Just Hold On We’re Going Home”.
Around 10:00, the tight warehouse of a performance space began to fill up in preparation for BadBadNotGood’s slated timeslot. The Toronto trio eased into its high-energy set with “Triangles”, the first track on newly released debut album III. One of the most captivating things about BadBadNotGood is the group’s ability to build and layer. The members can fluctuate between feel and style several times in a song while maintaining the same base energy. As a three-piece instrumental outfit, this is important. They don’t have a hype man or an MC, so they have to rely on tight sonic cues to get the reaction they’re looking for out of the crowd. That ability to build sounds upon each other is evident at the start of “Triangles” as bassist Chester Hansen and drummer Alex Sowinski solidify a strong, swung tempo. Then, at about 40 seconds in, Matty Tavares, the keyboardist, slides in with a forceful melody that assures the listener this isn’t your traditional jazz show and it’s more than okay to jump around once in a while.
For some fans, that powerful, dynamic energy can be a surprise. It’s not every day that a three-piece, instrumental jazz group encourages its crowd to “turn the fuck up.” But an industrial, concrete box like Glasslands isn’t really suited for anything but turning up.
Working on a tight schedule because of a late-night Neon Indian DJ set on the same stage, BadBadNotGood only had about 45 minutes to perform, making the set only six songs long. They pulled about half the setlist from their debut and interspersed a couple of covers to maintain a level of unpredictability. Because, when it comes down to it, that uncanny ability to perform electronic/hip hop beats and flip them with their own jazz edge is what made them famous. It was YouTube videos of them covering Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade”, as well as Tyler, The Creator’s “Bastard”, that built them a substantial online buzz in 2011.
BBNG’s first remix of the night was a take on Flying Lotus’s “Putty Boy Strut”, in which the group elicited crowd participation, having everyone’s hands burning red after making us clap at 130 BPM, or every single beat of the song. But the track was visibly missing something: Leland Whitty, the group’s buddy from Humber College and in-house saxophone player.
That cover is arguably not much of a stretch for the boys of BadBadNotGood, as Flying Lotus has created a unique space for himself somewhere between hip hop producer, electronic musician, and jazz artist. More impressive, rather, is their ability to create poignant live renditions of trap instrumentals, a skill they exhibited with “Lemonade” back in 2011 and continue to display with TNGHT’s “Bugg’n” on this current tour. “Bugg’n” is powered by a deep, bouncy beat that crashes with drum machine solos and synth drops. The crowd’s energy is at its peak while BadBad jams on “Bugg’n”, and the boys know that, provoking their fans with strung out drops and changes that have everybody waiting impatiently to rage face. “Bugg’n” is also one of the few times Sowinski grabs the microphone to act as a momentary hype man. While holding a tight drumbeat he’ll ask if you’re ready, then ask again if you’re ready, and then count down until the beat drops, kindly letting everybody know that this is when you forget about the valuables in your pocket and attack everybody within a five-person radius. Some call it a mosh pit, but this is jazz music, it’s got to be classier than a mosh pit, right?
Just as the show began with the intro track from the album, it finished with the final track, “CS60”. It’s a more mellow and almost ethereal track than the rest of the set, allowing the crowd to cool down, bouncing and bobbing their heads, this time keeping their arms to themselves.
This was BadBadNotGood’s third time playing in New York and the fourth of six stops on the North American leg of the group’s “Riding In Cars With Boys” summer tour. The three are still shockingly young and baby-faced, with endless room to grow and experiment. They have incredible guidance and support from their primary producer, Frank Dukes, known for his work with Danny Brown, Ghostface Killah, and 50 Cent, amongst others. After only three years together they’ve done everything from backing Frank Ocean at Coachella to producing tracks for a wide range of rappers and releasing a critically acclaimed debut album. But despite how successful they’ve been on paper, they’re still just three wide-eyed jazz conservatory dropouts, eager to creatively attack anything and everything that comes their way. Keep an eye on them if you aren’t already and look out for III— or, as Sowinski told the crowd after the show, “Go pirate that shit or something. Share it. Please just support good music.”