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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.

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