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Kassa Overall: A Different Kind of Fusion

The drummer, rapper, and producer blends jazz aesthetics with hip-hop processes

Kassa Overall
Kassa Overall (photo: Spencer Ostrander)

Kassa Overall, the drummer/rapper/producer whose work pushes the limits of any working definition of jazz, knows what you think of him. “Sometimes people assume, ‘Oh, he’s just throwing 808s on shit and disrespecting Miles Davis,’” he says with characteristic humor. But his argument—his mission—is a serious one, and one that he’s not sure is served by the way it’s often described. His latest album, I Think I’m Good, which was released on Brownswood earlier this year, has a song on Apple Music’s “On the Corner” playlist, named for Davis’ infamous fusion album; his previous one, Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz, is featured on Spotify’s “Jazz Rap.”

“I feel like some of the best aspects of my music, people don’t notice because they’re thinking about it with a certain kind of frame,” he adds.

“Hip-hop/jazz fusion” or “hip-hop-inflected jazz” is a tempting label for his music, which connects analog improvisation with beat-making and digital production; Overall’s rhymes, along with distorted contributions from vocalists Melanie Charles and J. Hoard, add still another dimension. But the point he’s working to make—the art he’s drawing from—isn’t about the overlapping space in the jazz/hip-hop Venn diagram, as he describes it.

“Like, ‘This kind of hip-hop is jazzy, and this kind of jazz is hip-hoppy, and these are the parts where they go together’—those might not be the parts of those forms that I like the most,” Overall says. “I’m trying to put things together that don’t necessarily overlap, find ways to fit things together that actually don’t go together.”

Instead, the self-described “jazz backpack producer” takes some of the methods of hip-hop and uses them to hone the music of his talented peers, many of whom—like Aaron Parks, Vijay Iyer, and Joel Ross—tend toward more conventional jazz modes. He made I’m Good by bringing his equipment (in his backpack, naturally) to his collaborators’ homes and studios, and then piecing their contributions together later. Essentially, he created his own set of samples to work from, ultimately editing the improvisations into a coherent whole. Realizing that he could incorporate a hip-hop-inspired process even more than a hip-hop-inspired sound or aesthetic, Overall says, was an “a-ha moment.” Conceptually, it’s connected to Makaya McCraven’s recent work, but the sound is completely different.

“I might have some sequenced drum stuff that I want to put a pianist on, but I won’t necessarily play it for the pianist because I don’t want them to start playing groovy, you know what I mean?” he says. “Sometimes, especially with a jazz musician, it’s like they hear the beat and go, ‘Okay, I’m going to play my Glasper shit,’ or whatever. And it’s like, please, that’s not what it is!”

It’s a new process for some of his collaborators, but he’s been on the scene long enough, working with everyone from Ravi Coltrane and Gary Bartz to Geri Allen (to whom he pays tribute alongside Iyer on I’m Good’s finale, “Was She Happy?”), to have earned their trust. “There’s definitely been times in my head where I’ve felt weird about like, cutting into [Iyer], for example, or even Geri Allen,” Overall says, alluding to the remix of “Unconditional Love” on his quarantine-crafted mixtape Shades of Flu. “But then at a certain point it’s like, I’m hearing this and it needs to happen, so I just go for it.”

Tying hip-hop and jazz together in a way that’s organic and not trite goes deeper than just production technique for Overall. It’s an important step toward reclaiming a musical lineage that still rarely gets considered as a whole—and emphasizing the political and cultural roots of that lineage.

“The reason [jazz and hip-hop] go together so easily is they’re the same language, the same thing,” he says. “But I think there’s also a deeper political or social lesson in there: the fact that they’re so divided in the first place keeps the power out of the hands of the people that are creating this stuff and have suffered the most. There’s not a continuum of energy and power from the elder to the young folks … it’s like generations of the same community being divided.

“I feel like there are these frozen assets of information and wisdom from people who really put in the work,” Overall concludes, explaining how he sees his music as a bridge upon which hip-hop fans can begin to see themselves and their culture in jazz history—and within a long tradition of work toward liberation. It’s not the only reason he includes a voicemail from Angela Davis on I’m Good, but that snippet certainly reinforces the close ties between the music and the movement.

“I imagine what it would be like if your average Black youth could throw on some late Coltrane and hear what he’s saying like, instantly—if that could be the normal thing,” he says. “I throw the 808s on a song so that the person that loves those kinds of beats will start to realize, ‘This is my same language. There are geniuses that come out of my culture, beyond the ones I’m already aware of.’”

Natalie Weiner

Natalie Weiner writes about music for a variety of publications including JazzTimes, Billboard, The New York Times, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. She is also a staff writer at SB Nation where she covers women’s sports and the NFL. Previously, she was a staff writer at Bleacher Report, and an associate editor at Billboard magazine.