Kassa Overall. Photo by Pascal Bernier

Q&A

Meditating in the Marketplace: A Q&A with Kassa Overall, Drummer, Producer, MC, Prodigal Son

"You're seeing jazz evolve in front of your eyes and you have to be part of it."

Some humans are simply too big, too bursting with ideas, to occupy a single place at a single time. Physical space might be an inexorable constraint, but like Kassa Overall says, within constraint lies the infinite.

Overall is a true Seattle son—born and raised here, graduated from Garfield High School, professed denizen of trees and sky and water. Years ago jazz drew him to New York, the city that most prolifically nurtures the music’s protean spirit, and there he’s both living out the dreams of his youth and exploring the farthest contours of his growing, restless creativity. He’s drummed with some of the proudest young lions of contemporary jazz, including Vijay Iyer and Ravi Coltrane, as well as the giants of the previous generation, like Donald Byrd, Wallace Roney, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Geri Allen.

As a producer and MC he’s recorded his own brand of outre hip-hop, partnering with former Das Racist MC Kool AD on the Kook & Kass project and releasing a few wildly experimental videos on his own. On his recent mixtape Drake It Til You Make It, Overall interprets hits by Drake, Kanye and Snoop Dogg in a genre-flouting style that incorporates jazz, pop, hip-hop, EDM, sci-fi beatscaping and more; further below we premier Erik Blood’s remix of Overall’s take on Snoop’s “Sensual Seduction,” which is so meta it feels like psychic shiatsu. Coming later this year, his first full-length solo album features cameos from jazz and experimental-music icons Roy Hargrove, Jon Batiste, Aaron Parks, Carmen Lundy, Arto Lindsay and more. From the preview tracks I’ve heard, it slots into a more conventional jazz realm, albeit the kind of conventional jazz that follows a single rule: There are no rules.

Overall, Overall’s music bridges Coltrane-esque spiritual-quest jazz, Brainfeeder Records’ trendsetting cosmic beat science, Shabazz Palaces’ Afrofuturist art rap and his own special brand of unpredictable, alluring weirdness. It’s all impeccably cool and endlessly compelling. The man excels not only in technical ability but in that rarer, perhaps more important realm of taste. He’s one of those people who’s not only good at everything he does but is often the only one doing the thing he’s doing. I spoke with him over the phone ahead of his gig at the Triple Door next Tuesday.

How’d you find yourself in New York?
I finished at Oberlin in 2006 and that summer I went back to Seattle and it was like alright, I’m back. As far as the jazz world, the height was people I was playing with in high school. It was great playing with them but everyone was like, “You’ve been practicing your whole life, you went to Oberlin, you’re just gonna come back and do this? Get the hell out, you’re our hope!”

I just went to visit New York, and I had a potential gig with Wallace Roney. He was Miles’ protégé and he wanted me to join the band and basically they were like, “If you’re not living in New York you can’t rehearse. You gotta be here.” And I’m in Seattle getting depressed, so I bought a one-way ticket and found a homie to live with for almost-free and I was like, I’m gonna go get this gig. I showed up and it wasn’t as easy as I thought. I didn’t have the gig like I thought I had the gig. I started getting other little gigs, local things, like playing djembe in a nursing home. A couple recording session with homies. And also there was a lot of creativity around. And I’m in New York and I’m a drummer: “How long you been here?” Every week I’m answering that question, like, three weeks, three months, eight months. Once you’re there the idea of pulling out feels like a loss. It’s just moving so fast. You become part of this merry-go-round, if you will. It moves so quick and you’re seeing jazz evolve in front of your eyes and you have to be part of it. It becomes addictive and inspiring.

After living in New York for two years I ended up moving back to Seattle for a while. For a Seattle kid that’s used to trees and water and stuff, it became too much and I wasn’t enjoying the music or the gigs I was on. I was starting to question, like, this is a lot [to deal with] for a $50 gig. It’s been a lot of ups and downs and figuring out how to handle all this energy.

Kurt Vonnegut said you have to live in New York until you get too hard, then you have to live in California until you get too soft. The back and forth rounds you out. [Editor’s note: Turns out it wasn’t Vonnegut who said that.]
I think you’re right. If I was just living in New York and never got to leave or tour or never saw Europe in the summer, I don’t think I could do it. I leave quite a bit. It’s taken years to figure out, but the way I have my life set up now, in New York I can feel like I’m not even here. I’m in Bushwick and I can be local and not get on the train and have everything within walking distance, get on the roof, meditate, do yoga. But it takes a long time to figure out how to do that within the mayhem. There’s this quote I think about a lot, a Buddhist zen koan that says, in a nutshell, a great man can meditate on a mountaintop but a really great man can meditate in a marketplace. That’s been my 10-12 years here in a nutshell. How do I remain a Seattle kid deep inside myself, and still participate in the hoopla, in the New York pace? Because if you don’t, you get trampled over. You gotta get hard but you gotta stay soft.

When I took some time off in Seattle after two years, I was like, I’m not taking gigs, I’m not doing nothing, I’m gonna chill and practice and fall in love with drums again. Then I got the call to play at the Village Vanguard with Geri Allen. And I’d been playing with her for years, she was married to Wallace Roney. And we were on break and I was able to leave New York without her finding out, and it was like, Village Vanguard for a week! And it hit me like a bus, like, bro, you’ve been listening to records at the Village Vanguard, all the greats played there, this is what you’ve been working for since you realized what it’s like to play a jazz gig. And now you’re too soft and can’t take New York City! And a lot of the homies around me in Seattle were still just in Seattle. They hadn’t made the jump to New York much less play the Vanguard. I was like, toughen up! And I went back out and that was the beginning of the I Can Handle New York Phase.

Earlier this year you released the Drake It Til You Make It EP, which skates across a wild array of styles but is somehow still super engaging. And then the album tracks I’ve heard from the upcoming LP seem to be more straight-ahead ensemble jazz. What’s the connection?
I think they’re similar and in some ways different. First off, the idea of the EP was to take some very popular songs, songs people know even if they don’t like them, because they’re in the fabric of everyday life. And to take those songs and do what those artists couldn’t do because they had to make a pop song. Make it attention-grabbing. Drake couldn’t have a weird drum solo in the middle of [“Passionfruit”]. They might be more creative than you think but they’re not in the position. I’m like, I have less than 1,000 plays on Spotify—I can do whatever I want, nobody cares! There’s a freedom there that I’m like, word, what if Drake really wanted to do some avant-garde stuff but he couldn’t? It’s an experiment in What do you like about Drake, Kanye, Snoop, and what do you dislike? I can make something you like but you don’t like the other thing. It’s like challenging the straight-ahead pop listener and avant-gardeist with good taste. Maybe you do like Drake! Ha. I thought of that EP a few months ago and within six weeks it was finished. It was a quick spotlight in my musical evolution. You can feel it—it feels like a moment.

The album is related in the sense that I’m weaving between elements that are like signatures to pop songs, a memorable hook or beat-driven thing and reframing the more avant-garde aesthetics. I’m playing within those two worlds. The difference with the album is that it’s really an album. And we’re in a singles-driven age right now, where you have the playlist thing. This album is meant to be heard, in that when you put all the songs together and feel the sense that this is a single statement, you get the avant-gardeism. At one point it’s classical, another it’s straight rap beats and another it feels like ’60s jazz. And nothing is sacrificed. I really play drums like that and I really make beats. It’s not a dabble. I’m trying to immerse myself. I feel like they’re related but maybe a different approach to doing the same thing, a micro-versus-macro to the same hypothesis, if you will.

That tradition of jazz interpretations of pop songs…
It was totally inspired by that as well. Even the idea of the jazz standard is funny because it’s basically Drake it Til You Make it. It’s the same idea. There’s a song on the album where I remake Yusuf Lateef’s “Love Theme from Spartacus.” You know that song? Listen to that once and you’ll listen to it the rest of your life. I didn’t realize it but the movie Spartacus came out a year before the Yusuf Lateef version came out. And it was one of Stanley Kubrick’s first major films, and Yusuf Lateef covered it and it became his big hit. He probably saw the movie and heard the melody to the love theme and was like, this is a vibe and I’m gonna turn it into a whole other thing. It’s foundational, a centerpiece of a whole style of music to me. Yusuf and I have the same birthday and we share it with John Lennon. Something about that vibe—soft-spoken-slash-cutting-through-the-heart energy that I get from both of them that I feel related to.

So I remade the song on my record. Instead of sampling him I just made it again with my favorite musicians. And I blend in production, I loop the outro and blend in some beat stuff. Some FlyLo new-dance energy. I’m leaving out a big part—the album is an experimentation with mixing genres, specifically jazz and hip-hop, but in ways that have been missed in the past. Obviously, jazz has been sampled so much by hip-hop and it’s so connected but there are so many other facets that the connector cables haven’t been utilized enough. On my album I rap over a jazz ballad, no sample or loop necessary. Things I would sample and loop, instead I’m just letting it play. For me as a jazz musician, I have that privilege. Your average beatmaker can’t just get a dope quartet and record a song. If they could they would. I’m utilizing the tools that I’m afforded and trying to find other ways of mixing things together. It’s been really fun.

To be honest it’s like what else can we do? Bacon on a donut? If that tastes good what about this Chopin joint? What would Chopin taste like with bacon? There’s certain hangup a lot of artists have, like, I wouldn’t do that to Chopin! Or chop up Kind of Blue! No! You can’t chop up Bill Evans. But why not? I think the greats would be happy I’m using myself like that. I’m getting away from This is too sacred. 

Going back to the very beginning… Why did you choose drums?
Cool, simple question with a funny, interesting answer. I was born at home. My mother was taking tabla lessons when she was pregnant with me, which feels relevant, and as I was being born they were playing a record of a tabla master, Mahaperush, an Indian classical tabla master. My middle name is Perush. When I was born, around that time they got my brother Carlos Overall a drum set. Four years older, he plays sax and makes beats now. They got him a drum set, and as a little kid you wanna be your older brother, and I was fortunate to have a drum set as my kiddie toys in the living room. I took to it quickly. There was a piano, sax, four track, beat machines, conch shells. Other instruments from other countries. It just happed to be there. So my relationship with music was one of a game, a child’s discovery. And it’s still the same thing.

You’ve stayed in touch with what’s happening musically in Seattle. You’ve had Evan Flory-Barnes perform at some gigs in New York and you’re playing with him here at the Triple Door. And you have Erik Blood remixing a song from the EP.
I’m seeing some of the things happening in Seattle and resonating with them instantly. I’ve known Evan since I was a kid, he went to Garfield and we played on and off for years. I’ve seen some of the stuff he’s doing recently and I was like man, it’s been 20, 30 years, we’re still here, still doing it, let’s do it! The longevity has shown that we’re both serious. I asked him to come to New York and do some shows with me. Brought him with me to my first show in Oberlin where I did a show and master class. And the Erik Blood thing is interesting because I’ve been following Shabazz Palaces as well, and it feels like they’re in tune with the jazz aesthetic, in tune with more dimensions—but still dope. It’s like never sacrificing the freshness and the importance of the message and the connection to the surroundings. I’ve just been following them and everybody involved with that whole camp. The Erik Blood thing I just reached out to him to do a remix and he got it done.

I think a lot of things, a lot of connections, I’m like, I’m here and ready, you know? In my mind I’m letting go of all hesitations in what I’m doing and trying to follow my star. The more I do that the more I look to find other people doing the same thing and see what we can come up with. I think Seattle has a lot of good stuff.

Evan’s band Industrial Revelation is the best live band in Seattle. They play in a traditional jazz format—bass, drums, horn, keys—but their music goes way beyond jazz. Post-jazz. They’re the Radiohead of jazz. It’s incredible.
Freedom within the constraint. Within this thing, he’s found the infinite. I respect that approach. And I’ve used it, and sometimes I rebel against it. I like doing both.

When I describe myself as a drummer, I say I’m a jazz drummer. I don’t have to say that but that’s how I think about it. I come from a lineage of drummers and I’ve studied a certain aesthetic and that’s where I’m coming from. I could be an everything drummer, and I do play everything, but constraint is a useful tool.

As I get older I realize all I need is a couple things, man. There’s this Kool AD line I love—a lot of his raps, he’ll write it and record it right after. He doesn’t figure out how he’s gonna rap it, he just gets up and reads it on the mic and over time it becomes a style. He says, “I don’t wanna edit a lot/I said it, it’s hot.” It’s so short, you can almost miss the meaning if you’re not listening closely. I love that! That’s jazz in nutshell.

Kassa Overall plays the Triple Door with Evan Flory-Barnes and Tim Kennedy and special guest Theo Crocker on Tuesday, July 31.