Aaron Hemphill (Liars) Talks BadBadNotGood’s Sour Soul

On this collaborative album, the jazz trio BadBadNotGood don't overwhelm Ghostface Killah, they make him sound more like himself.

I’ve always found live bands accompanying rappers to be an exciting idea in theory, but always disappointing in the end. In my limited explorations of such combinations, it always seems that at some point the band gets carried away and wants to underscore the “live” nature of its accompaniment. Basically, they end up showing off, which means it’s no longer accompaniment, it’s competition.

I’ll be honest: prior to listening to this album I had heard the name BadBadNotGood. I’d heard great things, but never found a moment to see what it actually was all about. Before I heard this album I thought I would be writing mostly about Ghostface Killah, the rapper on this record, who sounds great and inspired here. But it’s obvious that the players in the Toronto-based BadBadNotGood — Matthew Tavares (keyboards), Chester Hansen (bass) and Alexander Sowinski (drums) — are extremely nimble. Turns out they’re well trained jazz musicians who began playing their interpretations of hip-hop music by artists such as MF Doom and Odd Future (not to mention My Bloody Valentine and Feist). Soon they were backing people like Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean. Before I bothered to check out the band’s line-up, the thought never entered my mind that it might be a three-piece band playing the music, and I mean that as the highest compliment.

Ghostface has done this kind of collaboration before, too, with producer/multi-instrumentalist/vintage music aficionado Adrian Younge for 2013’s Twelve Reasons to Die and on the following year’s 36 Seasons, a collaboration with Brooklyn-based soul-r&b-blues band the Revelations.

Now, I’m not certain how the creative process for this album went down. Did BadBadNotGood record all of the music and hand a hard drive over to Ghostface? Did they collaborate from start to finish? I think it could be any number of things at once, but all of it points to the conclusion that these BadBadNotGood guys are incredible hip-hop producers. I think the term producer gets thrown around a lot these days. Any John or Jane with a laptop and some MP3s of their songs feels that the term producer applies to him or her. I’m not going to downplay the difficulty of writing and recording your own music all by yourself. What I mean to underline is the difficulty, the rare gift, of collaborating with another artist and provoking a greater performance from them through that collaboration. Making the artists more themselves than when they’re alone, that’s what I think a producer does. That’s what BadBadNotGood does here, making Ghostface even more himself. They also do really well with features, including MF Doom (“Ray Gun”), Elzhi (“Gunshowers”) and Danny Brown (“Six Degrees”).

Sour Soul is my favorite album of the year so far. That may have a lot to do with the fact that I’m a huge Wu Tang fan, and a bit stuck in the ’90s when it comes to what I’d prefer to listen in hip-hop. But if you’re like me, I have a feeling this record will be a really pleasant surprise.

I’m definitely going to devour other tracks BadBadNotGood have made to see how this dynamic works with other rappers. This is an album from start to finish, even if it’s not even 33 minutes long, and Ghostface sounds more like Ghostface than he has in a while. Great work.

Aaron Hemphill performs and records music with the band Liars. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he moved to New York after meeting fellow bandmate Angus Andrews, and lived there for about five years. He now lives in Berlin.