On his second solo outing, I Think I’m Good, the Seattle native and New York City resident raps/sings over engrossing music built of sampled and live sources, in the process practically creating his own genre: the jazz-hip-hop confessional.
A gifted drummer/producer who toured for seven years with pianist Geri Allen until her death in 2017, Kassa Overall swings like Elvin Jones by way of Billy Higgins and hip-hop/pop drummer Chris Johnson: hard swing, open style, free-flowing vibrations. Overall’s drumming style is physical, powerful, and flowing yet airy and dancelike. He’s a remarkably relaxed drummer; music pours out of his hands like water over a riverbed.
Kassa’s production skills bring hip-hop to bear in I Think I’m Good’s twelve tracks, which run the gamut from spoken word to improvisation to found sound, all delivered via Overall’s “backpack producer” perspective. Overall is transparent and daring throughout, revealing all when rap/singing about his former emotional and mental challenges and eventually coming out on the other side, whole and at peace.
I Think I’m Good features a hardcore NYC jazz cast: Joel Ross (vibraphone), Morgan Guerin (keyboards and horns), Julius Rodriguez (piano, synthesizer, electric bass), Melanie Charles (flute), Brandee Younger (harp), Theo Croker (trumpet), J. Hoard (vocals), and Craig Taborn, Aaron Parks, Sullivan Fortner, and Vijay Iyer (piano, keyboards), performing under Kassa’s vivid yet placid influence.
Though Overall can burn a streamlined jazz rhythm on par with today’s best, he goes further on I Think I’m Good, merging jazz and hip-hop sensibilities in profound ways.
Earthy drum triplets drive “Sleeping on the Train,” complete with New York City MTA announcements, seesawing flute, and dissonant piano. The wobbly Afro-Cuban solo drumming of “Landline” establishes a lumbering platform for a rap diagramming Overall’s childhood history. Kassa speak/sings wearily in the playful “Got Me a Plan,” which recalls a woozy Stevie Wonder freestyling alongside a Hammond B3 organ percussion preset, at times merging into manic drum ’n’ bass sections worthy of U.K. bass and beats slinger Squarepusher. Kassa dishes slippery brushes and programmed beats in the unearthly “Please Don’t Kill Me,” and jabs dancing stickwork over acoustic piano in the troubled but cartoonish “Find Me.” “Halfway House” sounds like a small child crying for parents while lost in a maze. I Think I’m Good closes with the Geri Allen tribute, “Was She Happy,” leaving the listener slightly confused, but satisfied and extremely chilled. The album is a sweet if heartrending journey through sonic production derangement, loose-fitting jazz drumming, wildly changing moods, and spoken word that’s equal parts hilarity and sadness.
Overall’s forthcoming Blue Swamini project adds harp and vibraphone to his drumming/production menu, celebrating Geri Allen and Alice Coltrane in a style he calls “the softer, spiritual, and feminine side of jazz.” That group includes Joel Ross on vibes, Brandee Younger on harp, and Rashaan Carter on bass.
Overall, who in addition to leading his own groups is also a member of Terri Lyne Carrington’s Social Science group, can be seen and heard all over New York City, guesting on impromptu gigs with like-minded musical souls.
Drums: Yamaha Absolute Hybrid Maple
• 7×14 snare (2)
• 8×10 tom
• 14×14 floor tom
• 16×16 floor tom
• 16×20 bass drum
Sticks: Vic Firth 5A sticks and brushes
• 10″ hi-hats (A Custom Splash top/
A Custom EFX bottom)
• 21″ K Constantinople crash ride
• 18″ Crash of Doom with rivets
• various Zil-Bels
MD: I Think I’m Good includes themes of incarceration and claustrophobia, but also a feeling of hope. How did you combine those ideas?
Overall: When I put these songs together, I started noticing a theme. I wasn’t trying to deal with all my experiences with mental illness; it was more that I felt comfortable living in this world and dealing with that feeling.
MD: How do you express claustrophobia?
Overall: In college I dealt with being bipolar. I was on medication briefly, and now I stay away from smoking, drinking, and eating meat, and I exercise religiously. But at the same time, going through those experiences had a certain feeling; it was mysterious and confusing. It doesn’t make complete sense. I had to piece it together or understand it as a lesson. What ended up making sense was living in that space and trying to understand what I went through—things everybody can relate to. We all have crazy ups and downs. I’m trying to normalize that in myself and relate it to everyone else [in my music].
MD: How did that experience affect your creativity?
Overall: The first time I went through it, I couldn’t play drums afterwards. It took a while to get it back. There’s a side of my creativity that kind of comes from almost an unhealthy obsession, staying up late or getting into this weird isolated cave mode. I’m trying to get away from that. I’m maintaining a more normal schedule now. I don’t want to be living in the deep end for two weeks.
MD: You refer to yourself as a “backpack jazz producer.”
Overall: While making this record, I had my bike, my Shure KSM44A mic, my Apogee Duet interface, and my laptop in my backpack. I’d go to [bassist] Stephan Crump’s house to record bass. I’d be producing and working on tracks, chopping up stuff. Then I’d go to Morgan Guerin’s to record bass clarinet, saxophone, electric bass, and then take all that into a big studio. We’d dump everything into the [DAW at] the big studio [Strange Weather in Williamsburg and Eric Harland’s GSI Studio in Chelsea] and record drums and harp and Indian flute. All those sessions went back to my laptop. I’d crack the laptop open and edit something as small as a breath or an open hi-hat. If you listen closely, you’ll hear these small decisions. There’s a lot of improvisation, and a lot of micro-editing.
MD: When you came out of Oberlin Conservatory of Music, you were a straight-ahead jazz drummer. I don’t imagine you were into samplers.
Overall: I’ve been making beats since I was a little kid and the whole time at Oberlin. But I didn’t know how to bring that into the conservatory. I was pushed away at Oberlin’s Technology in Music Program; they didn’t allow beat making. I wasn’t mature enough to understand how to cut through the BS. Even in the jazz world, often when you show up with electronics, they immediately say, “That’s some sell-out crap.” It’s all an excuse. I should have said, “Forget your personal opinion. Let me get to the stuff.” In jazz you just have to cut through. I still deal with this type of stuff every day.
MD: You deal with that attitude booking gigs?
Overall: Yes. I’ll bring laptops, drums, and keys, and the club will say, “Maybe you could add [acoustic] bass to give it a straight-ahead edge.” When you’re making something different and it’s your own voice, you can’t compromise. You must be forceful. Say, “This is going to be dope. You got to trust me.” It’s not a hateful thing. It’s just that people have their own opinion of what’s going to work. This music is unique, and I’m just grabbing the surface of it.
MD: The way you weave together acoustic and programmed drums is unusual. What’s your approach and process?
Overall: I’m a jazz drummer in the lineage of Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Max Roach, and Philly Joe Jones up through Nasheet Waits, Eric McPherson, Marcus Gilmore…. That’s a certain lineage of drumset playing. That’s where I come from. But a lot of the best drummers don’t come from that. They studied jazz, they understand it, they’ve incorporated it into their playing, but they come from a different root, from gospel drumming or Afro-Cuban, from Brazilian or funk or hip-hop.
MD: How do those drummers approach jazz?
Overall: I’ve heard a lot of drummers play in sequences. They play drums like an Akai MPC, like J Dilla or a trap beat. My approach is to play the drums from that original lineage I spoke of. I’m playing the jazz cymbal beat type of language. But I also love production; so, I play the way I do and add the boom-bap on top of it. It’s less fusion and more collage-oriented.
MD: And your process?
Overall: It could start with a sequence or a drumset or a sequenced beat. The secret of collage work is, “How can I reframe something?” Like this conversation we’re having: if we had a video camera videotaping this conversation, we could reframe it, and it could be a movie. When I’m making a production, sometimes I’m listening to a song, even somebody else’s song, and I’m thinking, What can happen that will make people listen? I’m constantly trying to flip the script.
MD: How do you typically create a machine beat?
Overall: I use Ableton Live. I grew up using an Akai MPC2000 and an Ensoniq ASR-10. I avoid MIDI and drop in Waves Audio sounds. And I sequence like a beat machine. I really try to recreate the beat machine approach. Sometimes I use an MPC.
MD: How do you treat either your acoustic drums or machine beats?
Overall: I don’t play too loud when recording. Have you ever seen Paul Motian at the Village Vanguard? Or Billy Higgins? I studied with Higgins at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. Those guys made me enthusiastic about playing. I want to hear the texture of the snare or the toms or the cymbals. Sometimes when you whack the snare at full volume you don’t get as many different types of sounds. But if you hit it soft, you have infinite different sounds.
MD: The song “I Know You See Me” sounds like a weave of live and programmed drums. What came first, acoustic or the electronic drums?
Overall: In that song, the electronic drums came first. Originally they were just a placeholder for people to play over. But everybody laid stuff on it, and it really fit. So I tailored it to make it fit, and then I put the live drums on it.
MD: In “There but for Fortune,” how did you create the chunky, main rhythm, which sounds like rim clicks or programming?
Overall: That song came from an improvisation with [pianist] Craig Taborn at Jazz Gallery. It was part of a series of shows there where I recorded everything. I made tracks out of some of that. This one made the album. Craig played a four-bar, kind of odd-time chordal loop. I took that and chopped it up, put it in Ableton Live, and looped it. And then I found myself doing a beatbox type thing from that same show where I was doing some vocal-isms. And I chopped that into the Craig Taborn loop and added a little bit of sequence on top of that. It’s me beatboxing and some added bass drum. [The song also has a sample from activist Angela Davis, who is a family friend.]
MD: “Landline” features a 16th-note solo and spoken word. What inspired this track?
Overall: It was inspired by my childhood, trying to tell the story of where I come from. I got my brother on the song. He’s my first drum teacher. When I was born, my parents bought my brother a drumset. I was pooping on myself, and eventually I started trying to play the drums and be like my brother. He started playing sax like my dad did; my mom was studying tabla when she was pregnant with me. She went to Stanford; me parents met at a yoga ashram in Seattle.
MD: Tell me about “Darkness in Mind.”
Overall: I made that song a while ago. Whenever I’d perform it, people would come up to me after and ask about it. That song connects to people. I saved it; I wanted to make sure we built it up properly before I put the song on an album. A lot of this album is built around that song.
MD: “Got Me a Plan” recalls old beatbox sounds, like a rhythm machine from a Hammond organ. It also sounds like Stevie Wonder over a drum and bass groove.
Overall: I recorded that drum part for another song and then sped it up. It started in North Carolina. There was a piano and a book called Hits from the ’60s. I learned the intro to one of the songs. I’m not going to tell you what it is, so the world can try to figure it out. I learned that, and then messed with it and found a tune out of it. It was slower when I played that groove, it’s like a James Brown–type beat. I sped it up and it became drum ’n’ bass, but what’s drum ’n’ bass but a sped-up James Brown beat?
MD: And then there’s a tribute to Geri Allen, “Was She Happy.”
Overall: That was my first session at GSI, Eric Harland’s studio, with Vijay Iyer. We recorded three hours of improvisations. We went to dinner, and he asked me if Geri was happy. I told him I felt like she was on a quest and a journey and that she didn’t really have time to think about if she was happy or not. I don’t think that that was her main concern. It was more like, was she getting to her work, or was she doing what she had to do? People could only get so close to Geri. She was kind of reserved and guarded. And as we were improvising, Vijay was playing chords and I said, “Was she happy?” You can hear Vijay stop playing for a second when I said that. Everybody in the studio could feel something spiritual was happening. We agreed in that moment that that song was for Geri.
MD: Where does the drummer end and the programmer begin in your music?
Overall: The skill set that the drummer develops is applicable to a lot of things in life, whether it be programming or editing video or timing of jokes in comedy—or even planning a night out. The drummer is the original producer. Before there was sequencing and production, the drummer’s job was to color everything. You’d be on brushes, then you’d go to sticks or you’d do the break, or you’d play a drum fill. All of that is like early sequencing.
Our skill set is timing; there’s an aspect of everything being timing. When it comes to visuals, I’m good at editing, and I never really studied that. I just apply that from my drum knowledge. I think of it more universally. And if you’re not in tune with the harmonic and melodic stuff that’s happening, even if you have good timing, you won’t know where to apply that timing, because you’re not hearing the real conversations. So you’ve got to hear the melodic and harmonic and then make your timing decisions in relation. It’s all connected to so much.
Story by Ken Micallef, photos by Paul La Raia