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Kassa Overall on The Shifting of The Cool

Written by on August 3, 2023

The Seattle-based artist discusses the art of collaboration, his latest album, Animals, and keeping the craft in jazz in the midst of a moment of change.

Terri Lynne Carrington describes edgy drummer/producer Kassa Overall as a
“pre-eminent style bender and blender, successfully juxtaposing genres”, and Kassa
has released three albums that each highlight distinct aspects of his

For 2019’s Go Get Ice Cream and Listen To Jazz and 2020’s I THINK I’M GOOD, Kassa layered
drumming, poetry and unique production, while Animals, released earlier this
year, introduces an angular, playful polyrhythmic approach. A highlight of that
record is “Make My Way Back Home” featuring Nick Hakim and Kassa’s longtime
friend and collaborator Theo Croker. The track illustrates Kassa’s return to
Seattle and his grappling with the concept of home. The project features Angela
Davis, Vijay Iyer, Francis and the Lights, Cecile McLorin Salvant and many

For my conversation with the artist, we met backstage at the Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa. While coordinating a rendezvous point, I decided it might make sense to meet him by the soft serve
ice cream machine, a play on the title of his album Go Get Ice Cream and
Listen To Jazz

Ayana Contreras: I’m with Kassa Overall. We are here backstage at the Blue Note Jazz Festival [Napa]. Is this is your first time performing at this festival? They did the festival last year too.

Kassa Overall: This is my first time, super excited to be here. First time in the
building, so to speak.

AC: And perhaps, ironically, we found each other at the little ice cream,
little soft serve thing.

KO: That’s true. It’s funny because I was about to text you, “Meet me
by the ice cream.” And you said you was by the ice cream, you said,
“I figured by the ice cream would make sense.”

AC: Right. Yeah. I mean, sure.

KO: You already telepathic with it.

AC: Absolutely. Okay, let’s start though, with Animals. This
record is quite different from your previous work.

KO: True.

AC: Tell me about what was going through your mind when you decided to
take this direction? Because I mean, I reviewed it for the NPR New Music
podcast and we really have enjoyed the record.

KO: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I heard it. I heard it. Thank you. Thank you for doing

AC: Absolutely, absolutely.

KO: And thank you for really thinking on it. You know what I mean? Trying to
decipher what’s happening. You know what I mean? I think that for me,
oftentimes when I’m making music, it’s like I throw something at the wall and
it’s like, “Perfect.” You know what I mean? When that happens, I have
this spontaneous composition kind of brain, and I’m always thinking that,
“You don’t have to overthink it and you can flow,” blah, blah, blah.
Then you can edit forever.

But when the pandemic hit and after, when you’re trying to make songs after,
during, and after all that period, I was going like, “Man, I can’t make
something that’s just some new music.” The world is too intense for just
some more good music, you feel me? And so, I made a ton of songs, a ton of
sketches, ton of verses that I didn’t like, and I just set the bar really high
for what could pass. And it had to be something that, I guess, grabbed me by
the heart. And so that was the barometer, and that’s why it just spun the way
it spun.

AC: You also had a lot of cool collaborators on the record. How did you
make those decisions about who you wanted to work with for the project?

KO: I mean, there’s two sides of it. I mean, part of it is just I’m living a
life. It’s like who I’m crossing paths with. I was out in Seattle a lot more.
That was how I connected with Ishmael Butler [of Digable Planets and Shabazz
Palaces] and that kind of thing. And a lot of it is just who you’re, as you’re
living life, who you link with. But at the same time, it’s also when you’re
making an album or when I’m making an album, it’s like, you’re making this
movie and there’s all… The different sounds are different characters. And I
can’t be every character. There’s certain characters and there’s certain truths
that somebody else has to say. You see what I mean?

AC: No, yeah.

KO: It’s not my truth to say that truth. Let them slide in and do that
perspective and let them slide in. And I’m trying to make something that
represents reality as a whole. I’m trying to make something that represents my
reality, but also that represents all our reality. It’s like other people got
to step in the scene.

AC: Let’s talk a little bit about jazz.

KO: Let’s talk about it.

AC: I mean. Okay. You put jazz in the name of an album. Obviously, you
think that at least some of what you’re doing is jazz influenced. But the
question is, okay, so this festival is the Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa, but it
has a very different vibe than probably most jazz festivals have. I mean, this
is your first time here. What’s your reaction to it?

KO: Well, I mean, the reaction’s positive, but it’s funny, when I was
walking around, I was actually having that same thought, because it’s like it’s
Digable, then it’s Talib [Kweli], and then you got Rhapsody, and obviously you
got Rob [Glasper] coming up, Yussef Dayes coming up. It’s all jazz connected.

AC: That’s right.

KO: But it’s not like it’s a certain… I guess that’s the beauty of, quote-
unquote, jazz is it has so many angles, right?

AC: Right.

KO: This is a certain angle of it, and I think that’s good that you have
some… It’s almost like every situation doesn’t need to be everything. You
know what I mean? There’s certain drummers that could play everything, but
there’s my favorite drummers, they have concentrations. This festival has a
certain concentration, and I think it’s dope that I’m here because I feel like
what I’ve been making… I’ve been making what I’m making for 20 years, maybe

It’s more recently that it’s gotten to the point where I think it’s
developed enough for people to really appreciate it. But I’ve been working side
by side to the Glasper world, and I’ve been like, “Yo, I got something,
too!” I’m trying to tap in. It just feels good to be here and a part of
this thing.

AC: I know you saw that the Grammys, they have an alternative jazz
category now.

KO: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Make sure you vote for Kassa Overall on that
alternative jazz. You already know, we campaigning door to door like Jehovah
Witness for that one.

AC: But it’s interesting because I don’t think there’s ever been one like
that before, but I think there’s more than enough music to do that.

KO: Yeah, it’s crazy.

AC: And I was reading an article and they were saying one of was because
Robert won for, what that R&B album or something like that. People were
flipping out on that. But then at the same time, a lot of y’all are going up
against legacy jazz people, and it’s like what you’re doing is a different

KO: Yeah, yeah. It was crazy. Because I actually, I self applied for my last
album for the Grammys. And when I did, and I was looking at the categories, I
was like, “Yo, there’s nowhere for your boy.” You know what I mean?
It was like, there’s literally nowhere for me. And not only that, it also shows
a shift in the culture because what’s happening is bigger artists, well, not
even just bigger artists, but artists from more popular genres are starting to
cross-pollinate with jazz artists. Right?

AC: Right.

KO: There’s a Yussef Dayes track with Freddie Gibbs that’s however many
years old. There’s Anderson .Paak put out DOMi and JD Beck’s album, and it’s
all this overlap. What is that?

AC: And Snoop’s on that album. All kinds of people on it.

KO: And Snoop.

AC: Right, yeah. Right.

KO: Yeah. It’s like we’re here. The thing about it is, it’s actually what’s
the coolest is shifting. And I’m really like, “Oh, where is this going to
go?” There’s positive things about it. And there’s also, I’m a little
worried because I’m like, “I don’t want this thing to become microwave
popcorn here.” You know what I mean? Where it becomes like, “Oh, you
want to make a hit, get some jazz drums and do the…” You know what I mean?
We got to keep the canvas thorough. You know what I’m saying? I

AC: I hear that. But then at the same time, I think there’s a generation
of people who fell in love with jazz because it was played alongside other
stuff. On the radio and in the clubs, and like Donald Byrd, people like that.
Those artists that were playing in the seventies or whatever.

KO: I love all that. And-

AC: We got ice cream’s spillin’, it’s live… This is real. This is real.
This is real here.

KO: Yeah, we on the radio, don’t nobody see that.

AC: Nobody saw that.

KO: But yeah, I was just in the lab with Gary Bartz last week, Donald Byrd,
Herbie, all of that. But I mean, I guess what I’m trying to say is that all of
those cats that made that music were super thorough in their craft. You know
what I mean? And then they made that.

AC: Right. That’s true.

KO: And so I’m just saying, I just want to keep the super thorough and the
craft part activated.

AC: Yes. I get what you’re saying.

KO: So, we can keep the… Because I also think jazz will almost be like
the… It’s Black intellectual music. It’s black spiritual music. It’s-

AC: Well, it’s also Black party music.

KO: It is. It is. It is.

AC: You know what I’m saying? It’s got all of those legacies in it.

KO: It’s got all of that. But I’m just saying that sometimes the lack of
popularity gives us a space to really-

AC: That’s true.

KO: … work without, “I got to make sure this is a hit.” You know
what I mean? There ain’t nobody in the club.

AC: But you also want people our age to be like, “I love jazz.”

KO: It’s true.

AC: And feel like that is their music. I think the good thing about a
festival like this is somebody who doesn’t necessarily have a lot of knowledge
of jazz is going to get exposed to a lot more jazz than they might… They came
to see Digable Planets, they came to see Nas, they came to see Mary [J. Blige],
they came to see Chance [The Rapper].

KO: Right.

AC: Right?

KO: Absolutely.

AC: Or maybe somebody, maybe Robert. But they stay for the… You know
what I’m saying? Stay for the pie.

KO:  Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. Of
course, I’m not jogging this.

AC: I’m just yes and-ing you this.

KO: Yeah, it’s, yes, and.

AC: Yes, and.

KO: Yeah. And I agree. I agree 100%. And also all of those people you named,
those are all great minds.

AC: For sure.

KO: You feel me? Most of those people help formulate me as a person. You
know what I mean? Straight up.


Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa 2023 Highlighted Jazz’s many “Angles”

AC: And also, I mean, jazz being used in like R&B and hip hop
obviously has such a long legacy. I remember when that Digable Planets record
came out.

KO: Same.

AC: That’s right.

KO: Yeah.

AC: That was a whole mind flip. Obviously, jazz had been sampled … a
Tribe Called Quest and all these other people, but-

KO: That was different.

AC: … there was something about that one, though.

KO: It was different.

AC: The jazz was in the front.

KO: Yeah, it was in the front. And it was the brand too. It was the brand. I
grew up in a household where the living room was piano and drums and was born
in the crib. And so we were music kids. When we saw that on TV, we was like,
“Oh, this is our time. We’re here now.” My brother bought that CD and
I bought Hip Hop Hooray. And that was our first CD purchases in life. That
album formulated me a lot, man.

AC: What’s next for you?

KO: Well, I’m touring until December. This has been the longest run for…
It’s been the longest run I’ve had. You know what I mean? My girl’s mad at me.
I’m going home tomorrow.

AC: It happens.

KO: We going to get some time. I’m trying to get back in the lab and start
cooking some tracks. I think the one thing about touring and stuff, you have
this energy, and I feel like I could go and just crank out some stuff now
because the energy’s flowing. And in the past, I might would take that for
granted. But I think it’s like keep that thing flowing while it’s flowing. For
me, make more tracks, do more shows, come up with some other T-shirt ideas. I
actually got a couple little book ideas I’m working on.

AC: I mean, you got to get that merch table popping.

KO: Popping.

AC: It’s important. I mean, as we know-

KO: We know.

AC: That merch table is crucial.

KO: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. And it’s just like, I just want be able to keep doing
this. Like I said, my heroes are cats like Gary Bartz and Billy Hart, and
people that are doing it into their eighties. And that’s all I want to do. I
just want to be healthy and to continue to be able to do what I love. And in
order to do that, you got to break even.

AC: Yeah, that’s true.

KO: We not even talking about balling. You got to at least break even. Come
to the show y’all.

AC: And visit the merch table.

KO: And come to the merch table. I sign it all!

Written By: Ayana Contreras

Keep Up With Kassa Overall On Instagram