I Am My Own Genre: An Interview with Kassa Overall, Artist-in-Residence
Kassa Overall is a jazz musician, emcee, singer, producer and drummer who melds avant-garde experimentation with hip-hop production techniques to tilt the nexus of jazz and hip-hop in unmapped directions.
In just the past two years, Kassa has released four critically acclaimed projects, most recently the pandemic mixtapes Shades of Flu and Shades of Flu 2 (both loosely inspired by Madlib’s Shades of Blue). Now, he is also a fellow artist-in-residence at the Roger Smith Hotel which has been championing the city’s artists, music and culture for decades. As the pandemic fades, the property has revived its in-house live shows and performances with artists-in-residents.
Read on to see what drives Kassa Overall to make music, why he knows he’s the leader of his own music genre, how it’s been to live at the Roger Smith during these unprecedented times and more in this interview.
What drives you to make music and how did you get into it?
It's my way of communicating to and for the universe, with other people and even myself. It was one of my first languages. And I got into it through my parents and older brother who all paved the path for me to keep going.
Where do you find the inspiration to create such audacious and complex music?
I think it's really just the need to make what I don't hear already. So much great art already exists, and it isn't my intention to create a good version of something that is already out there. That actually feels too easy. I could make a great version of almost anything out there. But the challenge is to communicate the uncommunicated – the hard to describe. That makes people uncomfortable but it allows me to sleep better.
Your latest Shades of Flu series focuses on “These Odd Times”. I was in Queens during the peak of the pandemic, and it was surreal. What was it like for you?
It was hard for sure; that’s obvious. But I also feel like the kind of musician and the kind of music I make. It's like we are really prepped for this. We are used to busying ourselves with long hours of self-work through musical exploration. The hardest part was to stay inspired to keep going. But jazz musicians – the kind that I stem from – are ready for this type of craziness.
I know your lyrics touch on a lot of topics including mental illness, but is there an overall message you wanted to tell the world with your COVID-19 series?
No, not really. I don't really have a message or a banner to wave. I feel like that would lock me in and also lock the listener in to being told what to get from it. I think there are many messages in my COVID-19 series and some of them could even be contradicting. I hope that the music inspires listeners to feel free to think, to be wrong and to be right – to try something that doesn't work out and to not fit in. That's less of a message and more of a principle or a process to employ.
Do you think "These Odd Times" are starting to return to normalcy? Especially in NYC, do you think the music and culture are going to thrive again?
I do not think we are returning to normalcy. I think that there are waves of abnormality. So even if things open up again, which is still a big maybe, we then still have to deal with all the effects. Like a soldier that goes to war, after he returns to normal life, he can never go back to looking at the world as they did before the war. So, we have a lot of processing as well as inner work, community work and group work to do that we may not even know we have. I do feel, though, like the music scene will thrive again. We are shedding fear and putting ourselves into everything we do, even this interview.
You've gotten loads of critical acclaim, many calling you the appareled leader of your genre. What do you think sets you apart from others?
I don't think it's the critical acclaim. One thing about critical acclaim is that there is always someone that the various machine decides to ‘give it up to’. And I was lucky in that I made something incredible; I was able to communicate my ‘message’ and the world was in the place to be open to it. That being said, I think I'm truly the leader of my genre because I am my own genre. A lot of people are going to hop on the bandwagon of a sound when it gets popular. But I'm really cutting paths in the forest. I could make a left and create another genre whenever I want to. And the bandwagon folks won't be able to hang on. No disrespect to anyone else out there, but I'm cooking with a different kind of gas.
You were raised in Seattle. What was it like coming to New York and breaking into the scene here?
It was fun. It was a great learning experience. Learning in that I was able to become peers with my heroes. Play music with the greatest musicians on the planet. Once I overcame one mountain, there was always another one waiting for me. And it's always like that. I'm usually moving too fast to actually notice success and acclaim. It always feels like we could have done better. And it's always time to get back to work. Now I'm used to the feeling; I just try to get some meditation or exercise in when I can – or read a book or look at a tree.
You're now an artist-in-residence at the Roger Smith. How did that come about and what made you decide to go for it?
David Arosemena [another artist-in-residence, who you can read more about here] is a great friend of mine. I used to hang with him in Bushwick and make music on stage and in the studio. He hosted a session at the Bushwick Hotel in The Basement Bar. He told me about it as well as Amaury Acosta, a fellow drummer of mine. I tend to watch the universe or God, or my intuition for a sign. I was in a tight situation where it was hard to be in NY. I had gotten rid of my music space and needed something to give. This popped up and I hopped right in. I feel like it's still just getting going, but there is a potential for this to be an historic moment in New York City. Shouts to Brooklyn, but Manhattan is back.
What's it like living with other artists and musicians? Do you guys collaborate?
I have always lived with other artists and musicians. It's normal to me. It makes me feel like this is just the language of the world. We do collaborate and plan to do more.
Roger Smith's marque says ‘it's an idea’. What does that idea mean to you?
Think and grow rich.
Jazz is all about evolution, and you seem to be, too. Do you have any revolutionary projects or ideas spinning in your head?
I have too many ideas, but I will say this. The norm today is evolution, revolution; change everything because everything from the past is wrong and problematic. So, my revolutionary idea is that no it's not. If we are going to evolve or just grow into better people; we have to embrace the past. The thing about the ‘jazz’ musician is that they are the most forward thinking but also the most studious. The way we break free to the future is by studying what has already been done over and over until it becomes second nature. Then we can really know where to go based on thousands of years of study. I also feel like we need to develop ourselves through discipline and self-work. That way, when we get shaken by what life brings us, we have the roots to not fall over. We can bend but never break. There are a lot of great ideas today, but we need to connect those to our roots so that we can grow strong. The rhythms I play and employ to create my music are built on thousands of years of study and life experience. I honor that in everything I do.
Lastly, what's with the overalls?
It's my actual last name and overalls are dope!