Remember that time you begged and begged your parents for a Game Boy Colour, but they didn’t budge, so finally you forgot about it; then eventually Christmas came around and you unwrapped that auspicious parcel and there inside was the sought-after device and you were so happy you cried vivid, 8-bit rainbows? Well, me neither – I’m still waiting for that day. However, I imagine the elation would be similar to that which I feel upon discovering BADBADNOTGOOD are coming to Perth. It’s been a while since I fell in love with their dense, swirling conflations of contemporary hip-hop and jazz; a while since my jaw dropped watching their live performances on the internet. Despite the profusion of great acts passing through Perth these days, I’ve hardly been holding my breath for this wild Canadian trio to drop in. Here they come. Cue joyous surprise and mild, pleasant confusion, since I’m hearing about it with only a few short days to go.
I feel really bad for those who had a similar rush of happiness when they heard about ZOMBY’s impending visit. I like Zomby’s music, but seeing his name atop the bill triggered the cynical question: I wonder how long ‘til he cancels? The guy is notoriously unreliable as a live performer, and amid a month of international touring disasters (see: Harvest Festival and Jesus Lizard cancelled, DIIV up in the air after drug charges, Limp Bizkit and Insane Clown Posse confirmed) his appearance has seemed like a long shot. No hard feelings held towards Next Hype or Astral People, the promoters putting Zomby up – no doubt they had good reason to believe he would be here. It’s just sad that the producer won’t shake his piker reputation, get on a plane, and actually come good on his promise to Antipodean fans.
For my part though, I’m just giddy about BBNG. I wander up to The Bakery and diffuse amid the steadily growing crowd. I meet some buddies and we enjoy Feral’s Hop Hog, the excellent local American Pale Ale, a welcome new addition to the venue’s tap beer line-up. Four DJs form the evening’s buyoant, rhythmic prologue: MENTAL GROOVE, KIT POP, CRAIG HOLLYWOOD and ALLSTATE. I’d be lying at this point – or at best, sounding hopelessly generic – if I claimed to be analyzing the precise nuances of each set, but collectively they run a tight and eclectic ship, rich with hefty kicks, echoing finger-clicks and dusty samples. We weave from golden-age hip hop excursions to smokey house and lushly-textured trap. It’s a lively but understated, gently blissful warm-up for the onslaught of the headline live act. (By the way – Kit Pop’s got a new EP out – and it’s pretty delicious).
I’m standing out the back, inexplicably chatting to a gregarious receptionist from Rio Tinto, when BADBADNOTGOOD assemble on stage. So far, there’s no great anticipatory hush, no wave of bodies moving inside, but I hear distinctly acoustic drums and live melodic vamping, so it’s time to race in there. It was probably time to race in there anyway, since Rio Tinto had just slurred that my friends and I were “too cute – like One Direction.”
As we approach the mood-lit platform, we can see two seated bodies – those of drummer Alex Sowinski, and keys player Matthew Tavares – plus one standing silhouette, belonging to bassist Chester Hansen. Visually, they’re unremarkble: three males in their early ’20s wearing jeans, t-shirts, hoodies. This description befits half the people in the crowded room. But the sounds they’re emitting are borderline superhuman. Our eardrums tingle and eyeballs slowly melt as the trio dart across crushingly funky, breathtakingly ornate grooves. Kicking off with what I’m pretty sure were some as-yet unrecorded originals, they soon segue into the realm of covers – inarguably, the field that made them famous. There’s Flying Lotus’ “Putty Boy Strut,” James Blake’s DMZ. While the covers are fun, and while it’s certainly interesting to see largely electronically-wrought music re-imagined by a skilled live band, I find the originals just as compelling: tracks like the epic CHSTR off their second LP, BBNG.
The band may be young, and they may brandish an ostensibly bratty attitude – having dropped out of jazz school to perform the songs of Lil B, Wacka Flocka Flame, Joy Division and more before famously teaming up with Tyler, The Creator and other Odd Future members. But besides embracing these genres and aesthetics, thus raising a cursory middle finger to the stuffy conservatorium wankers, BADBADNOTGOOD haven’t really shed their scholarly, intellectual ethos at all. Their playing, needless to say, is off the charts: world class chops that move effortlessly from mode to mode, groove to groove, juggling weird time signatures, dense arrangements and lightning rhythms. Their work ethic is comparable to any HD student, with the trio boasting recent work alongside RZA (for the ‘Man with the Iron Fists’ soundtrack) MF Doom (a JJ DOOM remix), Frank Ocean (performing as his temporary backing band) and maintaining a fierce touring schedule, meanwhile planning a third album. So when Sowinski momentarily sidelines his snare wizardy to rile up the crowd, bellowing at everyone to “wile out” as he counts down 4,3,2,1 to the riff of TNGHT’s “Bugg’n,” it does feel a little bit baffling. Are we really experiencing a “party” set? Or is it a cerebral jazz workout? Is this music for the brain, or the body? The answer, of course, is that it’s both. But often it’s one in such hefty measure, you can scarcely believe it was ever the other.
The band hurtle towards their finale – a staple medley of Tyler, The Creator’s “Bastard” and Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade,” reaching a sweaty, ferocious zenith before finally thanking the crowd, standing up and vanishing. No encore, no making a big deal out of anything. BBNG haven’t just ditched the chest-puffing attitudes displayed by certain fellow jazzers, they’ve kept things down-to-earth in a manner that some indie rockers could do well to observe. It’s no doubt a big part of their appeal: the virtuosos who look and act like skater rats, who play Zelda when they’re not shredding mixolydian scales and rapid-fire parradiddles.
I only hope that BADBADNOTGOOD, as an amazing musical entity, outlives its own schtick: I hope they don’t always have to rely on covers of trendy tracks (amazing as these covers may be) to get kids listening. Thundercat, who’s older but nevertheless a contemporary, has carved out an awesome niche for relevant jazz that intersects with genres like hip-hop and electronica in exciting, surprising ways. With any luck, this trio won’t feel compelled to recycle the gimmicks that got people’s attention. Instead, they’ll explore their own creative wells to their maximum depths, working relentlessly to create something that’s both a fusion and totally unique. If they do, these nimble upstarts will blow our minds all over again – and in brand new, trailblazing ways.