Interview With: Toronto R&B Musician Jhyve, Part One

Published on December 2nd, 2013 in: Canadian Content, Current Faves, Interviews, Music |

By Paul Casey

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About a month ago, I had a conversation with a talented musician from Toronto. Jamaal Desmond Bowry goes by the name Jhyve and makes modern R&B. He also has a touch for Rap. His latest album, Supermegafutureshit, resulted from a collaboration with producer Soul. The album is an atmospheric thing and another sign of how the genre is regaining its standing with listeners and musicians. Get low, change the tone, push through a whole bunch of compatible influences.

I spoke with Jhyve for about an hour and our conversation covered many things that I feel are important, especially right now. While we discussed Jhyve’s history and how his music has developed, we also got to talk about how R&B has changed over the years and why it is that so many unfairly reduce its ability to address human problems.

Just because you have grown up to believe that one genre is THE STANDARD, it does not mean this is everyone’s experience. Just because Rolling Stone tells you that the only worthwhile R&B is that one Marvin Gaye record they heard at a party that one time, don’t assume this is all the genre has to offer. Not all sex songs are vacant. Some have a lot to say about the human problem. Sex is not all R&B has to be, either. Things are changing, and hopefully soon R&B can encompass all manner of concepts and ideas. What will remain is its fearlessness and passion.

I have tried to present the conversation as close as possible to how it happened. I have edited and cleaned it up to make for a more pleasant reading experience but the meaning and the order of chat are the same. Part Two will be posted on Wednesday, December 4.


Paul: I really liked your album as I think I mentioned to you but, yeah, I was listening to your first one the other day: Strangely Familiar.

Jhyve: Oh yeah.

Paul: And I enjoyed that too but there is definitely a different sound on this most recent one. Did you feel that this was a real progression for you, doing this album?

Jhyve: Yeah actually, the second one came from an entirely different place. The first one really came out of, you know, trying to . . . I think I was still searching for a sound a lot of the time when the first one came out. I’d say I was still developing, so it really came from a place where there were still many directions I could really take it and the overall sound kind of came from this sense of trying to still find a direction.

Paul: Yeah.

Jhyve: Where as this one, the one I just put out, I think there was a little more confidence involved, you know? Once you put out an album—put anything out for that matter—once you really go through the process you know, you grow a lot personally. I mean Strangely Familiar I learned . . . you learn quite a bit after just going through it all and putting it out and then you’re still creating. Supermegafutureshit was years. I started working on that probably before Strangely Familiar came out. I’d met Soul—who was the producer for Supermegafutureshit—a couple months prior to putting out Strangely Familiar.

Our relationship before we started working together musically, it was more like a friendship, you know? So the whole creation of Supermegafutureshit was very casual. We’d be hanging out and he’d play a beat for me and I’d love it. And so I’d take some time and write to it and I dunno, play some guitar under it or whatever the case may be. The creation was so casual, like we were just hanging out a lot of the time. By the time we made our first song we just knew that we kind of liked the music we were making together. The vision changes partially ’cause of working with him; the whole creative process changed. There was a lot that was different between the two bodies of work. The biggest difference was probably just personal growth and just having him produce as opposed to me producing all my own music.

Paul: Yeah, ’cause the first one I think there are good tracks on it but it doesn’t necessarily flow together in the same way as this one. This one really feels like every track on there should be right beside the one before it. So you said that it was kind of a natural, casual growth out of just getting on together. You produced the first album yourself, is that right?

Jhyve: Yeah, usually with my own music I’d do a lot of the production of it myself. There’s a few other people that I worked with more recently, but when I first began it there were no real producers that were going for the particular sound that I thought I liked, so I did it all really myself. And even now my own music has done the same kind of thing where it has kind of honed in on a certain style. I’d say the first one was all over the map just because a lot of the time it can be, just when you’re developing and looking for that sound and style.

By the time Supermegafutureshit came out I had a better idea of what I wanted. Soul had a really good idea of what he wanted, so you know he was a big part in focusing in. There were songs that I did with Soul (where) I was rapping on them (or) I was doing like a love song. And a lot of the times he’d be like, “Okay, let’s stick to just doing this”. So he played a big part in the fact that it got very honed in, too because from the start he had a very particular vision on how he wanted the album to go. Just having him as a person there to say, “Okay you know what? Let’s not try all this stuff and let’s just have a certain kind of song, you know?” It sounds more like a body of work than what I’d done previously.

Paul: You talk on your website about combining Electronic and Rock with R&B. That’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, in terms of what I like to hear. What is it about those genres do you think that really mixes?

Jhyve: I think stuff like that was happening in certain forms before. I think the problem with those influences in R&B is they started disappearing once the business of music kind of got in the way with, you know, certain formulas about what people think they want from R&B. I think there was a time when you look at like, old Michael Jackson records from the ’80s, old Prince records from the ’80s, especially a Prince record.

You look at Purple Rain and there’s freedom there, you know what I mean? There’s experimentation, there’s a certain sense of fearlessness, but it was highly regarded, it was respected, you know? People appreciated that. I think somewhere along the line people also said they appreciated more classic forms of R&B. It’s just business, really. I think you’ll see labels coming with their formulas. That’s the story of anything, you know? Once something succeeds, you can either try to invent and try and make something else succeed, or you can take what succeeded and do it again. That whole idea of that eclectic nature of R&B, I think it just disappeared because of the business.

Paul: Well, it’s definitely easier. When Prince did Lovesexy . . . there’s a hell of a lot of European Dance influence on that album particularly. One of my best friends—even though he would love Prince and love Michael Jackson—he thinks he doesn’t like R&B, if you know what I mean. Because he has in his mind, “Oh that’s what that is; I don’t like that”. And you kind of have to sit him down and say, “No, there’s all of these other things that are a part of it!” I definitely hear more electronic influence now. Do you think that’s going to continue to be one of the big things?

Jhyve: Oh absolutely. I hope it doesn’t go anywhere. I want it to stay. Most importantly for me, I don’t want a certain kind of sound in R&B. I want R&B to keep experimenting. I think you’re absolutely right; I think sometimes people look at R&B through a very narrow lens. You say R&B and they think like Ginuwine and Joe and a B2K record or something like that.

Paul: “Sex In My Jeep” is what they usually think.

Jhyve: They don’t necessarily think, hey, your Miguels, your Franks and your Weeknds. I think anything ranging from stuff going on overseas. You know, your Amy Winehouses were R&B. I think Adele has R&B influences. I think AlunaGeorge have R&B written all over them. R&B is broader than people give it credit for. In some genres like Rock, they have it in the way where it’s broad, you know? So people know that a Rock song isn’t one kind of thing; it spreads all over the place. Metal comes from Rock and then you’ve got like, Classic Rock. It’s vast. And I think I want R&B more than anything to kind of gain that respect as not just one kind of genre but just an umbrella under which there’s many different types of genres. I think there’s just a problem with how people define R&B. I don’t think it’s necessarily a conversation of what R&B is or isn’t. It’s all R&B. It just comes down to us to broaden our definition.

Paul: Right. I remember reading something about Frank Ocean recently and somebody was saying that he’s not R&B because he has Pop and Rock influences. You’re totally right with Rock. Rock has the expectation that people who do Rock can talk about pretty much any subject and they can use various influences and instrumentation and production styles and the rest of it. It kind of gets to R&B and people think, “Oh, it has to be just slow jams!” and that’s it.

Jhyve: Yeah, that’s true.

Paul: Or that’s what it is. No, you can talk about anything and you can incorporate all of these things into it.

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Jhyve: Absolutely. You say R&B to somebody, their first thought is like R. Kelly, or their first thought is like, you know, one of those black boy bands where everybody’s greased up and they have tank tops and they’re like, calling out to a girl or something like that. I think R&B, you’re absolutely right, can be broader. R&B isn’t just about a love song and it’s not just seduction. I think R&B can be the human condition. You’re right, it’s really just discussing life and people and it’s speaking on that stuff. ‘Cause it comes from Blues and that’s what Blues is, you know? It was really not just speaking about love and loss; I think it got to that point because that was a formula that was working. I’d say Frank Ocean made the same mistake that a lot of people make when they look at R&B and they think, “It’s this or it’s that.” But he’s R&B! He’s singing like it! You know?

Paul: Yeah I know!

Jhyve: He’s singing like it . . . the subject matter and influences might be different, but it’s rooted in the same thing that an R. Kelly record’s rooted in, you know?

Paul: I read the thing you had about your song “To The Sky” and you were talking about how music is therapy and you know it can help us get through bad situations and the rest of it. I think that ties what you were just saying there about it being about the human condition. That’s always struck me most about R&B and obviously people like Prince. I mean, I remember the first time I heard Sign ‘O’ The Times . . . it was a bad period of my life; it was just generally not very good. And by the time it got to “Play In The Sunshine,” that was kind of it. I felt, “Oh, this is all right; it’ll probably be okay.” I think there’s something about the directness of R&B and whether it’s talking about sex or love or death or life or whatever. With someone like Bob Dylan there’s all that obfuscation . . . it’s kind of obscured behind something . . . the lyrics or whatever it is. But do you feel that way about it? That it’s that directness that sets it apart?

Jhyve: That’s a tough one because I personally think that Frank Ocean has more in common with Bob Dylan than he ever will with Prince. But I still think he’s R&B and I still think Prince is R&B, you know what I mean? When I think R&B, I think more of how it’s delivered in terms of the artform itself, so how it’s sung. What really reminds me of Bob Dylan when it comes down to Frank Ocean, is just his writing. Frank Ocean writes more like a writer of Folk music. I wouldn’t say he’s the most direct guy. He’s very observant and he’s very introspective and it comes out in his music. You get the sense that he’s really thought about it. It’s very thoughtful. I think it’s almost like Bob Dylan and Frank Ocean are painting a picture of the same thing using different methods, and I think Prince and Frank Ocean are painting different things in more similar methods.

Paul: Right, yeah.

Jhyve: So I think R&B, a lot of the times. is really how you paint. It’s the colors you paint with, but I think what you paint can be anything. So I look at some of the bigger names in R&B like Frank or The Weeknd or Miguel, and I think and I see similarities in execution but I see they’re painting entirely different pictures. I think their goals are entirely different.

Paul: For sure, yeah.

Jhyve: It’s all using similar tools, like their sounds are converging a little bit. There’s still differences but you know, you’re right I think it comes back to the best R&B artists today are—thank God—are not afraid of being eclectic. ‘Cause I don’t think that was the case six years ago. Who was on top in R&B six years ago? R&B is a rapidly moving, rapidly shifting genre, especially these days. I think we’re in a bit of a golden age.

Paul: I’m pretty happy at the moment ’cause I think it went through that period, probably from 2005 and it seemed like . . .

Jhyve: Maybe even take it earlier, but you’re right.

Paul: It seemed to completely drop off as far as people . . . guys like Usher basically didn’t really want to do it so much anymore and it wasn’t popular to do it. It wasn’t selling I guess.

Jhyve: Yeah it was just, it was stale both from, because the people involved in making the music weren’t thinking like the people making it now are thinking. Ten years ago, it was, you’re right, it was like your Ushers and Chris Browns, guys that have since moved to Pop music more or less.

Paul: Yeah.

Jhyve: Chris Brown is still very rooted in R&B but he’s kind of a Pop star. You can tell from the sounds, right? You look at a song like a “Yeah 3x” . . . he’s kind of abandoned R&B mostly, as a genre. He has records from time to time that are heavily influenced, but I mean modern R&B is just becoming so strange, you know? I wouldn’t even know what to attribute it to. But you’re right, I think five or ten years ago it was kind of in the graveyard. It was on life support; it wasn’t really doing much. It was breathing but it wasn’t doing anything, you know?

Paul: You had like . . . R. Kelly was still doing stuff, The-Dream was doing stuff, but you had everybody shifting away from it.

Jhyve: I think mostly you got the impression that there was no innovation coming out of it, really. Because it’s crazy, take whatever was topping the charts in R&B in 2006.

Paul: T-Pain, probably.

Jhyve: 2005 And it was like Mario “Let Me Love You” and then there was a time when, I’d say it was probably some Chris Brown record. It was just very much stagnant. And then these days, I think the more interesting conversation is talking about whatever triggered the shift, because I think there’s a lot of things you can look at. Things started changing . . . to be honest you can look at some Drake records. You can look at certain Weeknd records. You can look at things that were happening overseas. I think that would be an interesting just to see, where did that shift come from? Where did we go from Chris Brown and R. Kelly and even like, Trey Songz? I think Trey Songz was kind of that last R&B artist.

Paul: Yeah, the last gasp of it, I think of that style.

Jhyve: Yeah, really. I think he’s been trying to find his way back to the Billboard ever since. You know, because it kind of went through a shift. And I think it’s going to keep doing it. But yeah, I don’t know. When do you think it changed?

Paul: I don’t know, I was thinking the other day that Kanye West definitely had an impact as far as the tone or the subject matter. I mean, obviously in Rap, but I think looking at a guy like Drake . . . It kind of freed up a lot (of people) to just say, “Well, it’s actually all right if you want to make like, half an R&B track and combine all these things” rather than having this regimented, sectioned off, you have to be in this camp or that camp. You have to put yourself forward like a tough person or something that you’re not really.

Jhyve: I think 808s & Heartbreak absolutely.

Paul: Yeah!

Jhyve: I give that guy respect ’cause he is totally totally unafraid to (not) follow his own successful formula. He’s the kind of guy who has succeeded over and over again through multiple reinventions and shifts because he’s entirely unafraid to say, “This worked but I’m not doing it anymore. Let’s do this now.” You know? And there was no sign that we were sick of him after like, Graduation or anything. We were still. . .

Paul: Yeah, we still liked it.

Jhyve: You know, he was still making music that we wanted to hear. When a guy says, “Man, this album’s better than any other album, this was a better hit than any other hit I’ve had. You know as an artist this is about as strong as you can ever hope to be so that being said, forget all of that, I’m doing this now.” That takes a heck of a lot of courage, you know? Some artists never find their way to that peak once.

Paul: I still think that’s a pretty good album.

Jhyve: Oh absolutely.

Paul: That album seems to me like, going back to Bob Dylan, when Bob just said, “I want to just do electric stuff now. I’m bored with that other stuff.” But it’s that shift and I think that’s probably going to be an album that in like, ten years people are going to think a lot better of. I know a lot of people dislike it for whatever reasons.

Jhyve: 808s you mean?

Paul: Yeah. Like you were saying, it just shifted the perspective of what he did and freed him up to do whatever the hell he wanted, really.

Jhyve: You know what? When it came out it was a lot like when he just put out Yeezus. It came out and at the time it was just kind of ahead. And nobody knew why; everybody just knew it was ahead. And you’re right; looking back now . . . I don’t even think it’s going to take the next couple of years. I think looking at it now, you go back and you listen to 808s and you’re like, “Man, that’s like half of the R&B records now!” So I’d credit him with a lot of that. Like I said, I’d also very openly credit a guy like Drake. Even though he’s classified more as a Rap artist, he’s got a lot of R&B textures and a lot of R&B influences and Lord knows if he could sing better he’d probably just do R&B!

Paul: (Chuckle) That’s probably true.

Jhyve: I think if he had more confidence in his voice, if he knew he could hit those high notes I don’t think he’d rap. I think that’s where his heart is more.

Paul: I would say so, too ’cause if you look at the first EP and then the first album, there is more singing on that. Personally I prefer when he’s doing the singing.

Be sure to stay tuned for Part Two of our interview with Jhye on December 4.

Jhyve can be found on Twitter @thisisjhyve. His collaborator Soul can be found @talktoSOUL. Jhyve is planning to release a solo EP in the Spring. Both Strangely Familiar and Supermegafutureshit can be listened to for free at his website, http://jhyve.com/music/.

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