Meet BADBADNOTGOOD, The Jazz Quartet Creating Toronto’s New Musical Wave


There are a lot of artists and musicians holding down Canada, the most unassuming territory to chart Billboards with hip-hop and modern tasting rhythm and blues sound-bytes in recent years. You’ve got Drake and his OVO Sound roster—the biggest statement to come out of the region since the Canadian Tuxedo—that ranges from trapped out rap bars to ambient crooning. Then, there’s The Weeknd’s oxycodone-laced lullabies dominating the pop lane.

But there’s a new roster of Torontonians that are breaking through the underground to the mainstream, proving that the self-proclaimed 6 God’s view may reach worldwide, but isn’t the only one factor that’s making people move to the unexpected sounds of North America’s sovereign state. Enter BADBADNOTGOOD (Matt Tavares on keys, Chester Hansen on bass, Alex Sowinski on drums, and Leland Whitty on saxophone), a cool quartet of twenty-something’s with a deep-seated appreciation for the rhythmic distortion of jazz and the grittiness of hip-hop. Creating an experimental sound of their own, the group has surpassed their native border, landing into the ears of Odd Future cohorts Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt, plus many more.

VIBE chatted with the guys at Coachella about their jazz beginnings and hip-hop influences, creating an album with legendary Wu-Tang lyricist Ghostface Killah, and Toronto’s burgeoning music scene.

VIBE: How did you guys come together as a band?
Alex: We met at Humber College, it’s a jazz program in Toronto. We were just goofing around the hallways, talking about jazz and hip-hop and stuff that we were into, that not a lot of people you could have those conversations with. Then, we were like let’s just start jamming. We came up with these random ideas to play rap covers and started posting them online. It all really started as an idea of like, “Oh, maybe this is something we can continue doing not as a joke.”

Why rap covers in particular? 
Matt: I think mostly just because we all love jazz, obviously, enough to go to school and to practice eight hours a day to learn it all on our instruments. But a lot of the jazz standard repertoire is stale. I mean, I don’t want to say that as a blanket statement, because there’s a lot of amazing standards, but we didn’t really connect with them. We didn’t grow up with that music. These songs were in the 1920s, you know? We all grew up with rap music and hip-hop and punk music, and we just thought to play that instead.

So, what was the first rap album that sparked your interest?
Matt: It was probably Wu-Tang. My brother is 10 years older than me, and he’s a huge fan of them. He put me onto them and it was amazing.
Chester: I also have an older brother and he got me Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ when I was like, eleven or twelve, and that opened the floodgates. Then, I went out and bought Dr. Dre’s 2001, and from there, it was kind of my introduction.
Alex: I definitely got on the rap vibe late, because I had an older sister who didn’t really listen to a lot of rap. And then, I just started learning the drums and musicianship. I got into The Roots and A Tribe Called Quest, and all the classic ’90s albums, and then slowly later on, 2000’s kind of stuff.
Leland: My older brother showed me A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, and that was some of the first stuff I got into.

That’s interesting because you guys hit the scene with a jazzy rendition of Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade.”
Matt: We were jamming standards ironically, but we were playing a song that was in the same key as “Lemonade.” We just noticed it and it kind of just happened. We were like “that sounds cool! Let’s try that with other songs.”

Has Gucci Mane ever reached out to you guys?
Matt: That would be amazing, but no! One time, Waka Flocka’s friend called Waka during our set and held up his cell phone to show him because we were covering “Hard In The Paint.” But we never met anyone from that camp. That’d be amazing though. Have we talked to anyone, Alex?
Alex: We had Freddie Gibbs and he has a feature with Gucci on “Shadow of a Doubt.” But, yeah, I wish.

Tell me about the Toronto music scene. The mainstream world is familiar with big acts like Drake and The Weeknd leading the pack, but there seems to be this bubbling underground scene too that’s starting to get shine. 
Chester: The whole Toronto scene has changed so much in the last five to eight years—basically, the Drake era. It put everyone’s eyes on the city and then gradually became bigger and bigger. I feel like it got more young musicians in the city excited about doing their thing. It’s like, “Well, finally people are paying attention to Canada,” especially in the hip-hop and producing world. There’s such a huge range of talent there and a lot of amazing singers that are killing it. It’s awesome.
Matt: What’s happening for Toronto is kind of what happened in Atlanta in like, 2006. You know what I mean? Onward, all eyes were on that sound—Lex Luger and the more modern day dudes like Metro Boomin and Sonny Digital. Now, I feel all that spotlight is sick, because Atlanta has such a definable sound, and that took 10 years to grow. I think Toronto is just starting to get its own sound, so it’s kind of like the next city in a way.
Alex: Even similar, there’s so many studios opening up and a lot of MC’s going in and really recording a lot, in a similar Atlanta sort of style. You know? You see a front-runner like Future who has created his own style and putting his city on. It’s a good way to just stay motivated and creative.

Speaking of collaborations and keeping the creativity churning, you guys linked up with Ghostface Killah for Sour Soul last year. How did that come about, because he’s particular about who he works with.
Leland: The connection came from Toronto. We share a studio with a guy named Frank Dukes, he’s a producer, and he was on the road with Ghostface for a while and produced some things for him. Dukes had an idea of just trying to get a live band to produce a record with a rapper. The project initially started without knowing if Ghostface would actually be the guy, and then it did. It was like a three year process that I wasn’t really a part of until later on. It went on to be amazing, and we’ve done a bunch of shows with him now.

Basically he’s not just the OG to y’all now. He’s the homie, too. 
Chester: Yeah [laughs]. At the end of the show, he’ll ask me, “Oh, are your arms okay?” making sure we stretch. He’s really an incredibly nice man. I can’t believe we have that level of respect as artists like him. It’s pretty f**king cool.

What was the recording process like? Was Ghostface just like “come up with something and let’s listen to it?”
Matt: Yeah, that basically was the process. I mean, I can’t speak for every person in the world, but it seems like from my perspective, a lot of modern rap music is made where you kind of finish something instrumentally, you send it to the rapper, they do their thing, you send it back. Not everyone’s in the room at the same time. So it’s very freeing for us because we can 100 percent do our thing, send it to Ghost, and he can 100 percent do his thing. Then we can meet in the middle. So, in that sense, we could do whatever we wanted. So much, that if he sent us something back, and we heard our instrumental underneath it, we could be like “this would be cool if we actually change the instrumental,” and cut it around his vocals.

Coachella ’16

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Earlier you talked about the next wave of Toronto kind of having its own sound. What would you describe Toronto’s sound as, and what would you describe your own sound as?
Matt: It’s hard to pin down the Toronto sound. I guess it’s pretty ambient, like with a lot of melodic sing/rapping happening on top, which is a big facet. You know, a lot of slower BPM, like triplets. It’s kind of hard to use musical terms to describe anything.
Alex: I feel like the Toronto sound kind of pertains more to MC’s and producers right know, but I would say, like what Matt was saying, the sound is still emerging so much. There’s so many different singers and songwriters coming out and making music that it’s kind of changing almost. It’s almost kind of stuck here with certain things, but outside the box in terms of R&B singers and stuff like Daniel Caesar and Charlotte Day Wilson and stuff, and River Tiber, really emerging and exploring a bit more, rather than just the hip hop realm and the MC kind of thing.
Matt: I was gonna say what’s cool with the Toronto is that it’s moving toward being like Atlanta and Houston, cities that have their iconic sound. I know Toronto isn’t there yet in the sense, but you kind of know it’s from that city when you hear it. I think that’s starting to happen with Toronto. Like, oh, here’s something on SoundCloud or whatever, a new song will drop, and you’ll be like “that kind of sounds like it’s got that Toronto vibe,” which is cool.

At the end of the day, what do you guys want the listeners to take away from your music?
Matt: Hopefully it surges a positive stream of energy. Especially when I listen to jazz, it’s an incredible visceral thing where you get really excited and you get all this energy. If people got a bit of that, that’s cool If not, that’s cool too. It’s really all about positivity.