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Thundercat: On Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Erykah Badu and the great LA jazz renaissance

Rob Garratt By

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Music is not meant to be threatening and scary. It’s somewhere between you being a child and an adult… you just have to try to not be afraid, to walk towards what you don’t know at any given point. —Thundercat
When, a few years back, the mainstream media began breathlessly anointing the arrival of a West Coast-born jazz "renaissance," Thundercat's name was invariably invoked second in the evidence list— behind, of course, that of his childhood buddy Kamasi Washington. While Washington's career has gone stratospheric—with a summer co-headline tour alongside Herbie Hancock the latest summit mounted—Thundercat has proved no slouch, picking up widespread praise for 2017's Drunk, an idiosyncratic third outing which squeezed squelching lounge-funk grooves, electro-pop hooks, gymnastic falsetto croons and leftfield stoner humor into some 23 tracks, shuffle-dealt in less than 52 minutes.

Taken alongside Thundercat's longstanding creative relationship with LA beat figure-head Flying Lotus, and coupled with his much-touted incubational role in Kendrick Lamar's game-changer To Pimp a Butterfly, the blistering bass prodigy born Stephen Bruner is arguably the greatest living embodiment of contemporary improvised music's restless, genre-agnostic "golden age." And talking to him, ahead of an appearance at Sónar Hong Kong, was a front row seat at the party.

All About Jazz: Your profile received a tremendous bump—and you no doubt reached a much wider audience—with the release of 2017's critical hit Drunk. What was it about that record which touched so many people?

Thundercat: I don't know, to be honest with you, I wish I did—I guess that's kind of just the magic of what it is. It bends and twists and turns, and there's always a plot twist, like an M. Night Shyamalan movie, and you just never expect it.

AAJ: The thing that strikes me: It's a really, really fun record, but at the same time you're such a ferocious musician, technically—so I always wonder what goes through your head in the compositional and production process. How do you balance those two conventionally opposing elements—the popiness and the musicality—and do you ever feel the need to reign yourself in?

T: I feel like it's not so mechanical to me. It's very fluid—it's a bit symbiotic in the way it flows together. At some point in my life I think it just became a bit more of a secondary language to me, where it's not so separated, and I just try to stay in that place when it comes to the creation of the music, and the thought process.

AAJ: Your work strafes so many different traditions, I'm sure a lot of people must ask where you feel most comfortable, your roots, but I want to know where do you feel uncomfortable? Are there any musical contexts you don't feel safe in?

T: Well yeah, you can't really walk into any situation with a mindset that you know how it's going to be, even if it feels like it's simple—something from hip-hop to playing Frank Zappa's 'Saint Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast.' They all exist in the same place to me. A lot of the time, there are moments when I would feel a little bit uncomfortable, but it's somewhere between expectation and reality, couple that with setting and satire, and it can be pretty intense sometimes. But I think music is not meant to be something that is threatening and scary, like we make it out to be sometimes. It's somewhere between you being a child and an adult, your understanding changes or grows, or it stays stunted, it's all these different things that can happen. But you just have to try to be there and not be afraid to walk towards what you don't know at any given point. It's all relative. So a lot of the time I would imagine the things that make me uncomfortable are just... everything.

AAJ: But you have to follow that uncertainty, that's the sweet spot where creation happens.

T: It's always a challenge. Anything from intonation to somebody expecting me to play one take, it's all threatening, everything is threatening.

AAJ: I guess you've spent a lot of your life in the studio. Do you find it threatening to play with jazz greats in a live context?

T: Sometimes. It's all different worlds: A person who's spent their whole life studying things and doing things the way they have, and then you come along and fart and pick your nose and their eyebrows cut up and you don't know what they're thinking, everything's being analyzed and you don't know what's going on. But I think it's all part of the fun.

AAJ: A lot of ink has been spilled analyzing the West Coast musical crossovers of the past few years—but this triangulation of jazz, hip-hop and electronic music didn't come out of nowhere. As someone on the frontline, and in the engine room driving this process, what were the musical, cultural and social factors which incubated this music? Why did this all happen now, this flourish of creativity?

T: Some of it is the environment. The energy that comes about in LA that's very open, and jazz being a big part of the conversation, clearly. Growing up here was very special due to many different factors, everything from a music teacher to the company you keep, finding like-minded people—I feel very fortunate to have grown up with the friends I've grown up with. They're very serious about what they do—and it kept me serious about what I do. I think that it's everything, every part of the process—the growing and the playing, the travelling—it all exists in a place that allows it to be very highly open and creative.

AAJ: A lot of people have declared the present day as a new "golden age" for jazz. Do you agree with this diagnosis, and is that kind of pressure and scrutiny dangerous to progress?

T: I always feel that any time you put a title or name on anything, it's very difficult for it to breath, absolutely. However a lot of the time people see stuff the way they see it, and there's different perspectives. Somebody looking from the outside in could see it one way, another person that's in it sees it another way, another person who's around it sees it another way. But I think all in all, it's about the body of work being worth the hype, and I think that's what's supposed to speak loudest. As long as the footwork that goes into creating these moments, or whatever people deem them— that's what it's for, what it's put out for—for people to find out how they feel about it, and I think that's what brought that [mindset] about. I don't necessarily like to subscribe to stuff like that, but at the same time, that's how the people see it sometimes, that's how it is. That's not why I do it. I think everybody's crazy, so I think there's a part of it, I just don't think about it, I just don't relate—it has nothing to do with the actual body of work that exists.

AAJ: A lot of the attention—and pressure—of this movement has been heaped on your close friend and collaborator Kamasi Washington. What's the working dynamic like between you?

T: I've known Kamasi since I was born, basically, I feel like it's congruent with real life how we work together, even until now while I travel on my own—he travels on his own, and whenever we get a chance to get together, sometimes we play together. But growing up with Kamasi was really fun. He was always excited, always introducing me to new music, always writing tunes, finding gigs and stuff for us to play. He was always very much that person that was very excited in giving, and I feel like it just nurtured me musically, it made me feel okay to be myself in the music, and not be threatened by the big jazz monster—the mystique people create around it. Growing up we would play tunes, go out to play gigs, listen to music, go buy hundreds of albums and try to listen to them all at once. It was a very music- consuming environment for that, and we soaked all of that up. I think that's why we are all where we are now.

AAJ: Another guy you will forever be associated with is Flying Lotus.

T: Again, another one of my closest friends in life. A lot of the time I just feel we enjoy the act of working together, being around each other and working, because a lot of the time it's challenges—everything from communication to conveying ideas, from the standpoint of [me] always working on a live instrument, and he's working on an electronic instrument. A lot of times the challenge would pose itself to move fast and think quick and create in a different mindset, everything to melodically to harmonically, hearing different things—"I heard it this way," "well I heard it this way," "I didn't know you were listening to it like that"—all kinds of things would arise but we would still always be like... it's exciting, it still excites me, the thought of getting to work with him.

AAJ: Do you think you'll always keep coming back and working together?

T: Y'know, who knows. Things change, but at the same I'm the kind of guy, I don't like to think too far—I like to stay out of my mind a bit, even though you can't help but go in your mind about stuff, a lot of the time, I was taught to stay out of my mind.

AAJ: So much has been said and speculated about your "pivotal role" in the genesis of Kendrick's Lamar's groundbreaking album To Pimp a Butterfly. How would you characterize your contribution, and that working relationship?

T: Kendrick... I don't know where to begin with Kendrick—now that's a guy carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders. He's been a voice, he put feet to what everybody is seeing and hearing right now. And I think that, in regards to working with him, it was one of the most incredible experiences I've had in my life, when it comes to creating. And he changed my life, he did, for a very big period of time he changed my life. He excited something in me, my songwriting, it was a just a life-changing experience working with him. That's the only way I can describe it at this point.

AAJ: But you were always working in hip-hop, what was it about that collaboration, that process...

T: I think it was the want to go to a different place. There was a mutual want to take things in a different direction. Kendrick's very much a dreamer and thinker, very much. You can tell from his lyricism how intent he is, and I think a mutual want for things to change, along with the climate conditions, of living here, everything from being black and the economy, all these different factors—what it means to be black or white or any version of that now— it played a very big factor in the process. Of course, jazz and hip-hop have always been melded together, forever. I feel like a lot of different things created our desire to push the envelope, it was kind of like the inevitable.
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