our Soul, the joint album between Toronto’s BadBadNotGood and Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah has made its impact by now. In a sea of trap beats and other similar stylistic tropes, Sour Soul is a welcome rarity. BadBadNotGood’s live instrumentation combined with Ghostface’s long-honed gift for storytelling far exceeds (already high) expectations and makes a strong case for one of 2015’s strongest musical efforts.
All that said, Sour Soul was not an easy album to create. Between tours and recording sessions, the album was a product of patience and a unified artistic vision fostered by producer and longtime Ghostface collaborator Frank Dukes. Mere hours before hitting the stage for a now-legendary performance at Toronto’s Opera House, BadBadNotGood took a moment to go through the story of Sour Soul’s creation, collaborating with and learning from Ghostface Killah – a childhood idol and industry vet.
Frank Dukes: A few years ago I was doing a lot of work with Ghostface Killah – some production, DJing for him on tour – stuff like that. After that, I was in a different place musically; I was feeling live instrumentation more. In 2009, I’d actually sampled this great Brooklyn act called Menahan Street Band (for a 50 Cent mixtape). I loved their approach to recording and composing – I felt like it added something to Ghost’s vocals and his team agreed. They wanted something more live sounding for him and that’s around the same time I came into contact with BadBadNotGood.
Matthew Tavares: We were doing most of our recording in this amazing analog setup. It was such a sweet environment and gave us this incredible 1960’s sound.
Tavares: That sound has been evident on Ghostface’s strongest efforts, including 2000’s Supreme Clientele, 2004’s The Pretty Toney Album and 2006’s Fishscale. Those albums gloriously placed Ghostface’s vocals overtop his own childhood influences. 70s stalwarts like the O’Jays, Otis Redding and Gladys Knight. Meanwhile, those melodic elements – jazz, early R&B and soul – are fundamental parts of BadBadNotGood’s own aesthetic.
Alexander Sowinski: That happened to be exactly what Ghostface’s sounds about these days. And when we got into the studio, it’s not like we were just trying to emulate what he’d been sampling, but I think everyone agreed that our sounds just meshed. It was the perfect blend.
Tavares: I think what he liked about our sound was how it builds. I mean, rap is typically all loop-based, where we use somewhat of the same structure, but in a more progressive way. I think what also worked was easy access to strings and horns. There was a marriage of melody and lyrics that I think just worked.
Sour Soul’s key challenge was getting the two acts into the same room together. Both tour relentlessly. Both also produce music relentlessly. Ghostface’s catalog includes 13 solo records, six collaborative albums (including Wu Massacre and Wu Block), prominent roles on most Wu-Tang members’ solo joints AND a leadership role when they all find time for a new Wu-Tang Clan album (A Better Tomorrow dropped mere months before Sour Soul). So with that kind of work ethic at play and about 500 miles between them the guys went to work.
Tavares: You’d think that not being in the same studio would be hard and maybe ten, fifteen years ago it would have been, but the internet made it easy for us. I mean, you can’t always be in the same place at the same time and Ghostface has a specific studio he likes to record out of in Staten Island, but we were able to communicate with him all the time, get his opinions on ideas we had. It was a great relationship we had with him.
Chester Hansesn: There were times where he’d have feedback about our beats and he’d be able to show us exactly what he meant. At one point, he was showing us how the beat could fit his lyrics better and we were able to re-cut it and send it back to him that same day.
Sowinski: Most of the collaborative tracks you hear on the radio these days – some of those people aren’t even in the same continent when they record their parts, but it all sounds like they were standing beside each other at the time. Everything was done remotely, but we met up, we did shows together and we just talked everything out so much, the collaboration felt every bit as special.
Tavares: I don’t think Ghostface has stopped touring since 1993. And us, we’re touring our last album (2014’s III) so it was a bit tough to get out of the mindset of playing our own shit and then moving on to the stuff we were doing with Ghostface. The most time-consuming part of the process was composing and then mixing music we felt has a cohesive feel to it throughout.Ghostface was also working on that too. He wanted to make sure his lyrics had similarities, like similar themes and elements throughout. That part of the collaboration, as detailed as it was, took the longest I think.
BadBadNotGood have collaborated with a roster of impressive emcees, from Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt to Black Milk. But for them, Ghostface remains a different level of performer.
Hansen: I think Ghostface just has tons more experience. He’s this legend and the guy’s work ethic and attitude wasn’t just amazing to make music with, it was incredible to learn from.
Sowinksi: Yeah we learned a hell of a lot from him. Just a few days ago, he gave us this lecture. He said the two things you’ve always gotta be are positive and creative. You stay positive throughout the challenges of being a touring band and you stay creative to make records people want to hear. And suddenly, the way Ghostface is able to do it all these years just made sense.
Tavares: Ghostface’s flow and palate have changed and grown as he made albums and it’s because he’s willing to learn from artists and be influenced by them. The guy always wants to bring the old stuff he loves and the new shit he hears together into the same space. I think for those reasons, Ghostface is the pinnacle of artistic integrity in hip-hop.
As for their own style, the band has a few insights as to the historic marriage between the hip-hop and jazz worlds.
Hansen: Part of it is that when hip-hop first got started, emcees would rhyme over any records they had lying around and a lot of those records were jazz. The other thing is, when you’re in a trio or quartet, you’ve got a lot of solos. The one instrument kind of dominates while the other instruments back them up. It’s exactly how it is in hip-hop. The samples have to support the emcee, but sometimes the DJ will also take centre stage. I think that’s why jazz instrumentation meshes so well with hip hop lyrics. There are also melodies; time signatures and cadences that have always meshed better with hip hop vocals than most genres. Like, A Tribe Called Quest use so much jazz in their samples of course because that’s what they grew up with, but also because they have to do so little to the sample to make it work with their style. It’s a symbiotic feel that way.
As for BadBadNotGood’s future, the cliché goes that the sky’s the limit. After hearing Sour Soul, what emcee wouldn’t want to collaborate? Moreover, considering this is a new leaf for Ghostface, who’s to say the Staten Island vet won’t want to make Sour Soul 2?
Tavares: I think if we’re going to make another record, as good as this process was, we’d want to fly down to Staten and hole ourselves up with Ghostface in that studio for like a month and come out with a finished album. I think the parts where we were able to actually put our ideas together were the best ones and you can hear that on Sour Soul. We’ve talked about that and I think we all agree that if there’s going to be a Sour Soul 2, that’s how to do it.