On 'I Think I'm Good,' Kassa Overall Expands The Realm Of Jazz/Hip-Hop Fusion

Mar 10, 2020
Originally published on March 10, 2020 4:20 pm

Kassa Overall thinks about sound the way hip-hop producers do: Anything can be transformed into a beat. With a background in jazz — he's played with Christian McBride, Ravi Coltrane and the late pianist Geri Allen — the songs on his new album, I Think I'm Good, also have moments that sound electric and improvisational.

Based in Brooklyn, N.Y., Overall calls himself a "backpack jazz producer," a cross between a jazz musician, a backpack rapper and a bedroom producer who uses his laptop as a mobile studio. Smashups between hip-hop and jazz have been happening for decades, but recent works by Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus and others suggest that the realm is maturing. Kassa Overall is accelerating that evolution, with sometimes-confessional observations and dramatic, unpredictable sonic landscapes.

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"Show Me A Prison," a lament about the American prison system, is one of several songs that viscerally describe the experience of confinement. While studying music at Oberlin, Overall was hospitalized after a manic episode. He's only recently begun to talk about it, and he believes that his willingness to share led directly to some creative breakthroughs, like his haunting reworking of Chopin's Prelude No. 4 on "Darkness In Mind."

Kassa Overall recorded this album like a nomad. He'd show up at one of his talented jazz artist friends' house or rehearsal space — he recorded Sullivan Fortner at the piano in the kitchen of his studio apartment — and, without divulging much about the track, encouraged loose, free-form exploration. Then he'd go home and chop up the results, sometimes micro-editing beat by beat or phrase by phrase.

Despite all that detailed work, I Think I'm Good is alive with spontaneity and outcomes too wild to be scripted. It's not another jazz-meets-hip-hop scrum: It's the sound of whole new lanes opening up.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Kassa Overall calls himself a backpack jazz producer. He's a cross between a jazz musician, an underground rapper and a producer. Using his laptop as a mobile studio, Overall went around New York City, capturing spontaneous moments with his jazz friends. He played with Christian McBride, Ravi Coltrane and the late pianist Geri Allen. The results are woven into the songs on his second album, called "I Think I'm Good." Tom Moon has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE DON'T KILL ME")

KASSA OVERALL: (Singing) Pick a side, and we collide. We don't die. We multiply. It's you and I. It's you and I.

TOM MOON, BYLINE: Kassa Overall thinks about sound the way hip-hop producers do. Just about anything can be transformed into a beat. But since his background is jazz, his tracks have moments like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF KASSA OVERALL SONG, "PLEASE DON'T KILL ME")

MOON: Smashups between hip-hop and jazz have been happening for decades. But recent works by Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus and others suggest that the realm is maturing. Kassa Overall is accelerating that evolution, with sometimes confessional observations and dramatic, unpredictable sonic landscapes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOW ME A PRISON")

OVERALL: (Singing) Show me a prison. Show me a jail. Show me a prisoner whose face has gone pale.

MOON: That tune, a lament about the American prison system, is one of several that viscerally describe the experience of confinement. While studying music at Oberlin, Kassa Overall was hospitalized after a manic episode he's only recently begun to talk about. He believes that his willingness to share led directly to some creative breakthroughs, like this haunting reworking of Chopin's Prelude No. 4.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARKNESS IN MIND")

OVERALL: (Singing) But the darkness of my mind and the love thereof...

MOON: Kassa Overall recorded this album like a nomad. He'd show up at someone's house or rehearsal space, and without divulging much about the track, he'd encourage loose, free-form exploration. Then he'd go home and chop up the results, sometimes microediting beat by beat or phrase by phrase.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARKNESS IN MIND")

OVERALL: (Singing) I will wait for you. I will wait and pray for you.

MOON: Despite all that detail work, his final product is alive with spontaneity, outcomes too wild to be scripted. It's not another jazz-meets-hip-hop scrum. It's the sound of whole new lanes opening up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEST OF LIFE")

OVERALL: (Singing) The best of life is truly free, a brighter day for you and me. Just listen close and you will see.

CORNISH: The new album from Kassa Overall is called "I Think I'm Good." Our reviewer is Tom Moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF KASSA OVERALL SONG, "THE BEST OF LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.