Making Moves: An Interview with JAWWAAD
Although you may not be very familiar with his work, multi-disciplinary musician JAWWAAD has been changing the game in Houston’s music scene and beyond for years. JAWWAAD has performed with the hip hop group Shape of Broad Minds, whose 2007 album Craft of the Lost Art received international critical acclaim, as well as in a duo with Nameless Sound founder David Dove and in the experimental group The Young Mothers, who are currently on tour in Europe. Known for combining various genres and methods in his music, Free Press Houston sat down with JAWWAAD to discuss his various projects, how they are received outside of the US and how Houston has impacted his sound.
Free Press Houston: Can you tell me about your history with the hip hop group Shape of Broad Minds?
JAWWAAD: So Shape of Broad Minds kind of took off in 2009, but the record was released earlier in 2007. By 2009, Europe was really digging it, we were critically acclaimed and all of that. Having MF Doom and Count Bass D and all my heroes on the record kind of lent itself to touring and meeting a bunch of people. We met CeeLo, ended up hooking up with Khujo Goodie [of Goodie Mob] and recorded a song with him, which was phenomenal. We met CeeLo when we were on tour and played the Hove Festival in Norway in 2010. We sort of opened up for Jay Z. It was The Cool Kids, then Jay. Just to have the honor of opening up for him was insane. We’re just a hip hop group from Houston, even though unfortunately not a lot of people from Houston heard about us. Over there, they ate it up. We were hanging out with Madonna, doing all kinds of wild stuff. Danger Mouse was on our label at the time and he was cool with all these people by then. He had co-opted Paris Hilton’s record. He somehow got a crack copy of her entire record and found out the distribution and slid a copy of his CD into every Paris Hilton release. We ended up playing Paris Hilton’s birthday party in London, just because of that. [laughs]
FPH: How long have you been living in Houston?
JAWWAAD: Well, I just returned to Houston about five years ago. I was born here, so I was here all my life, but in 2008 I moved to New York because Shape of Broad Minds was doing well on the East Coast at that moment. We had a lot of gigs out there so it made a lot of sense to move out there. I stayed there for about seven years, and then I moved back here.
FPH: You’ve managed to combine hip hop and jazz in a manner that’s uniquely your own. How did you come to find your sound?
JAWWAAD: That’s an interesting question. I think I found that sound early actually. First, I’ve always been a student of music. Growing up, my family was full of a bunch of crazy, unique thinkers, intellectuals and/or some type of strange creatives; painters, sculptors, people that were very interested in arts and music. Two of my uncles had incredible record collections and my first experience with music was hearing this strange sound on the piano. I could tell that it wasn’t classical music, R&B — I’d heard all of that — and now, as an adult, I know who it was. My uncle was playing Thelonious Monk. I was hearing these strange chords, strange rhythms and strange chord progressions; tinkering with sound. Being exposed to that early, it was a really big part of training my ear to loving jazz. He gave me my first records — actually, they were cassette tapes. He gave me The Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy. A few months later, my older cousin gave me a tape of Too $hort and NWA. I had to be around 8 or 9 years old, so it was a little aggressive. I probably shouldn’t have been listening to that stuff. [laughs] I remember calling my friend from Austin and letting her hear Too $hort and she was like, “What are you listening to? This is scary.” I was like, “No, it’s great. That’s why it’s great, because it’s scary.” [laughs] So I noticed that hip hop had these jazz elements, the way the basslines would be queued, the way they would sample, drum breaks, and Low End Theory and things like A Tribe Called Quest just blew my mind. From there, my actual development in terms of being a musician, was when I started playing piano at a very early age and went from that to rapping. I was completely obsessed with it. Eventually I started producing and playing trumpet as well. My ear was tuned to jazz. I developed my own techniques and practices in terms of the way I wanted to incorporate it. I would say the unique elements also come from my uncle giving me two very important records: a Sun Ra album and a Cecil Taylor record. He also had John Cage and Anthony Braxton and other names that are very important. These guys were experimenting with jazz and the way jazz should be structured and the way people should interact with it.
At some point, I was kind of fed up with the city and the way it appreciated our local talent and I kind of stopped rapping for awhile. That’s when I got really involved with the trumpet. I remember just practicing to all these more avant-garde records to understand what they were doing. It started with blues, bebop and then I got into strange textures that the instrument could create. As I was doing that, I saw an ad for Jemeel Moondoc, it was a Deep Listening concert, which is now known as Nameless Sound. I went to this concert, I met Dave Dove, and through Deep Listening, Pauline Oliveros became a huge inspiration to me. She’s a Houstonian. I was just like, “Wow, she’s from my town.” She developed this theory of how people should interact with sound and life. Not just on records or to dance or party, which I love and I do all the time, but she put more thought into music than I had previously explored myself, even though I was familiar with artists like John Cage or Elliott Carter or whoever, classical musicians and composers. Being in this city, having the opportunity to meet her, to do workshops with her and then develop work with Dave, ultimately creating a duo, really influenced what I’m doing now.
FPH: You helped organize the genre-spanning Sonic Transmissions Festival in Austin with your bandmate Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. Can you tell me about the festival and what you have in store for the future?
JAWWAAD: This was the second Sonic Transmissions. The first one was sort of an opportunity for the band to play Austin, bring our friends, and we put a few people together, they were legendary people like Joe McPhee and so on, but we were able to do that and it was successful. This year was a little different because we wrote for a grant. We won the grant and thought that we should put together a festival. We ended up bringing like 30 artists to town, we went crazy.
FPH: You’ve been on tour with The Young Mothers. Can you tell me how you became involved with that and what you’re working on?
JAWWAAD: I got involved with Ingebrigt because I met him at a show that he was playing in town. He happened to be dating a woman, they’re now married, that I was friends with, so we hung out and went out to eat after the show. The funny thing about that is that the woman, Andrea, was a young mother in the Young Mothers Program at Project Row Houses, which is where my wife works now. In honor of our meeting via Andrea, we named the band The Young Mothers, so it’s kind of named after the Young Mothers Program there, not a lot of people know that. We met at the show, and oddly enough, I was moving to New York the next day. I had boxes packed, from floor to ceiling, and we invited people over and had this crazy party. Of course I had all my records still out, so we’re playing music, and we just got real cool from that night on and decided we had to play music together. I moved to New York a few days after that and he called me and was like, “I’ll be in New York next week,” and I said, “Well, I’m setting up a show.” The first time we played, we had never played before, somehow it was written up in the New York Times. It was wild, I don’t know how we got that PR. He’s a well-known and respected guy and he was playing the Vision Festival in New York, but they focused on our gig. We were like, we’re just going to improvise. I brought my drum machine and my trumpet and I had my mic set up, and he had his bass, his acoustic upright. I was rhyming — free-styling — and inspired Steve Dalachinsky, who is a famous beat poet, to jump up on stage and start improvising with me. From there, we had to have at least ten people jump up on stage and sit in with us that day.
FPH: So you’re on tour with The Young Mothers, are you going next?
JAWWAAD: This upcoming tour, were going to start off in Norway. We play Oslo first and then Copenhagen, Trondheim and Stockholm, and from there we go to Russia.
FPH: Do you find a difference in the audience response when you tour outside of the US?
JAWWAAD: You know, the audience response is amazing pretty much anywhere we go. It’s fun because we get a lot of gigs out there. They support live music, especially creative music, in Europe. The last tour we just got back from, the Sun Ra Arkestra played the night after us. So we played the night before and tore shit down. We got four encores, and we did four encores, but they wanted a fifth. We were like, “Man, we’ve been playing for an hour and a half, so let’s just go out and bow.” It’s graceful and it’s cool. So we go out and bow and they boo us. “We want more, boo, boo!” So the next night, Sun Ra Arkestra is playing and they’re like look, Marshall Allen is like 92, he’s the original saxophone player for Sun Ra Arkestra, but he’s still amazing. The way they’re approaching their music is so modern, so right now, and they’re giving people Sun Ra and his ideology and way of approaching music, but they’re also giving people what they’re familiar with in a beautiful way. So they play and they give them two encores and literally for a good 30 to 45 minutes after the show, they’re chanting “Space is the place, space is the place,” singing that, spilling out onto the streets, going all the way to their hotel rooms, still singing it. That’s the kind of reception you get in Europe sometimes, when the situation is right.
FPH: I feel like that in terms of improvisation or any type of avant-garde music, it’s not always as well received in Houston as it maybe should be, even though there are some amazing people doing that in the city.
JAWWAAD: So for me, avant-garde music, creative music, is an extension — I’m speaking for myself — it’s an extension of jazz. I was introduced to it through jazz, and jazz in this city is huge. We have the top pianists in the world, right from our city: Robert Glasper and Jason Moran. Jason Moran was my neighbor when I lived in New York and we’ve spoken about this, about the challenges of coming to this city and not finding venues to play. When I think about all of the challenges of someone on his level — this man has won a MacArthur Genius Grant — that someone on his level, coming to our city and not being represented properly, not being appreciated the way he should, it says a lot. The reasons, I imagine, are sociopolitical, I think they’re financial — there’s all kinds of reasons — from the way people interpret certain kinds of music. I mean, “jazz” was a derogatory word at one point in history. I’m saying all that to say that there are many reasons that our audiences aren’t provided with spaces to come here and listen to experimental music. Even finding venues to book world renowned artists, that’s a huge problem. But as far as me and the way I’m affected, I think especially because I’m interfacing many different worlds, from visual arts — I’ve played the Menil, the Cy Twombly Gallery, the Rothko Chapel, DiverseWorks, Lawndale — I’ve played those venues and they’ve appreciated it, but again, there’s a problem of getting the audience to come out sometimes. So for me personally, my challenge has been — because I’m so interested in a diverse group of styles of music and art, for me diversity is king — it’s how do I get people to understand that that’s who I am. I honor diversity and I try to pull in all of these things that inspire me to create and I think that for younger artists, it’s very important for artists to have a centralized place for people to come and see your work, to see and interact, and it’s important to explain with clarity what your practice is, where it comes from, the history, and I think artists in this city have to sort of unionize, we need to come together and there needs to be a camaraderie here and I think in certain communities, musical communities, that it’s lacking. I think that sometimes we don’t support each other like we should and I’m guilty of that as well. I’d like to be a catalyst for change in that sense.