By Paul Casey
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. Read Part One of the interview.
Paul: Kind of going back to what you were saying about people having a very narrow perspective of what the genre is… How do people relate to the music that you’re making now? Is this a different response than when you did the first one?
Jhyve: I’d say yes for a couple of reasons. First of all I’d personally come a long way in terms of my own abilities. I’d say between Strangely Familiar and this one I’m a better singer, I’m a better writer and a better guitar player. I was just overall doing it so much that I kept improving. And I think a lot of that reflects not necessarily in the quality of the music all the time. Sometimes it just reflects in the confidence. I think there’s a certain confidence that comes with that that’s intangible but it definitely communicates. You can listen to the sound of my voice on Strangely Familiar and you can tell.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people and I think what people liked about it was (that) Strangely Familiar fearlessly took on issues. . . like obsession, rejection. And not one of those “girl, you cheated on me, you broke my heart.” I mean, I’m talking really low stuff, you know? I listen to a song like “I Fucking Love You” or “Two Face” or “Did To Me”. . . it’s not like a love triangle thing, like girl you cheated on me. It tackles miscommunication. There’s subtleties that people can relate with just because the story didn’t have to be extravagant. Great stories are as plain as real life can be sometimes. But I think the greatness of the story itself is in how it’s told and how it’s communicated rather than the events you know? The best stories are just extraordinarily ordinary. I remember reading an interview, they were talking about how I sounded really hesitant. You go through and you give it another listen and I almost sound shy. I’m putting on a brave face a lot of the time but a lot of it when compared with the music I am playing now, I sound less confident. But I sound more earnest. And I think that works with the vibe of the album because that was kind of what the album was reflecting. I was being openly rejected. The album art was me sitting there holding out my hand and a rose and nobody’s there. There’s an empty wine glass flying through the air.
When Supermegafutureshit happened it was definitely our aim from the start to just make it a record that was less about heartbreak. It was kind of caught between our observations of the life that we live here, just being from Toronto, just that urban city life kind of thing. It’s observing what’s happening around us. Supermegafutureshit was just a little more broad in its take. It wasn’t just about a breakup. It was about these stories that are kind of seen in our everyday lives just coming out, you know? There was difference in the content as well. The two albums to me they’re night and day and I appreciate each one for what it is but you’re right the one I put out just lately to me just kind of shows growth. To me at least (chuckle).
Paul: Well, it definitely sounds like it. It definitely sounds like there was a lot of work and a lot of change between them. You were talking about that song “Two Face”. That video is really good; I just watched it there before we started talking. That isolation… that’s kind of what I meant when I was saying that R&B has a directness. I don’t even mean lyrically, but like you were saying it’s the way that it’s performed, the way that it’s executed. I remember when I was five years old and the first album I remember hearing was Bad by Michael Jackson. The first person I noticed liking, like actively liking. It is that performance in it. It’s the vocal style of it and it’s the willingness to be exposed… Or to be more out there.
Jhyve: It’s definitely on its sleeve. You’re wearing that. You’re right. Absolutely.
Paul: Are you performing live?
Jhyve: I mean, these days what Supermegafutureshit was ultimately was kind of a collaboration between Soul and I. Because it was such a long time coming and we knew that it was something we just wanted to put it out there and just sort of gauge reaction. So now yeah we’ve been doing a little promotion. We’ve been doing some shows and stuff like that. Nothing too crazy just because you know between Soul and myself, we still consider ourselves up and coming musicians. So we’re not quite at the point where we’re ready to tour the world with it but you know on request we put a show or two together. People appreciate it for what it is. People appreciate the style of it and I think that’s what I’ve developed most actually. There’s a style to it that is unmistakable that’s kind of in its own right ’cause the songs cover everything. The title song is really about just girls going out then “So High” is self-explanatory. And then you’ve got songs like “Enter The Void”. One of my favorite songs is “Reflection.” “Reflection” is essentially a song about me being a vampire. Quite literally, when you really kind of break it down and get it word for word. I was writing this song about, if I were a vampire what would it be like? I like how casually it asks big questions. It was wrapped in some of Soul’s best production. I love what he did with that record just how he changed up the sound and the pace picks up. So I dunno just little stories you know? And I don’t think they have to be a certain thing, but you’re right it’s direct, it’s right on my sleeve. I’m not really trying to obscure it too much. It’s very what you see is what you get. If you just listen to it, it’s right there.
So I think you’re absolutely right a lot of what really sets R&B apart is the fact that it can be very direct without being basic. You can tell those stories and create these experiences and you can come straight at people. It’s kind of awesome. It’s very earnest. It’s always on its sleeve you know? I think the subject matters to me. . . I think between that and the sound those are the biggest changes between R&B now and R&B six or seven years ago.
Paul: For sure, and I think what appealed to me first with it all was just that thing of “Wow they’re really performing! They’re really doing it!” I like a whole lot of different kinds of music but R&B is not like seeing a more reserved singer-songwriter or poor old Nick Drake. It’s just like “I’m going to get up there and I’m going to do it!” I mean that was the thing and just really singing. Not holding back on it. Really being there doing it. You mentioned on your website that your father would do some DJing and your mother was singing in church choirs and things like that. How big an influence did having musical parents, or parents who were interested have?
Jhyve: I’d say mostly it came from knowing that it was accepted. Which is funny because I really didn’t get into music until much later. But it was always there. It was always kind of at my doorstep. At any given time growing up it was my Mom playing Gospel records upstairs and singing her songs. And she was incredibly into that stuff. She was into anything, man! Anything from like Mahalia Jackson, any kind of Gospel you can think of. She was just very much into those big notes and the choirs behind them. She loved that stuff and even to this day she sings for the Toronto mass choir over here. It’s always been a part of her life you know? I remember going down into the basement and that was kind of my Dad’s domain. Where you have just shelves of records on the wall and it was everything. His focus was mostly with, you know, Soca and Calypso, just having those West Indian roots but everything was at play. There were R&B records; there were Rap records. I remember my Dad had the single of Big Daddy Kane’s “Stop Shammin'” around there (chuckle). And I remember playing that non-stop. I remember he had Montell Jordan records, I remember all kinds of things being down there you know? Anita Baker records. Just kind of everything, sign of whatever the times was. He had Tribe records. He had a bit of everything. I remember he had some Teddy Pendergrass records. He had a fairly broad taste himself.
It was cool ’cause it was always playing. There was never a time when music wasn’t playing. So those were the memories that stuck with me most. And then with me it was just growing up, the people I was around it was just Rap, it was Hip Hop. All day, Hip Hop and R&B and I remember getting my first mix-tape and it had songs like Notorious BIG “One More Chance,” it had more Montell on it, it had Outkast. It was the first time I heard Outkast and my mind was blown when I first heard them. It was “Elevators” at the time.
Paul: Yeah, they were amazing.
Jhyve: It was funny because I never really had a bone in my body for Rock records or anything. . . nothing different from like, your Hip Hop, Calypso, Gospel, R&B, until I went away to school. I went away to a University for a bit and I was just hanging out with guys that were into like Bob Dylan records and Neil Young records and Eric Clapton records. It was this entire new world that was opened up to me at that time. So I went from listening to like, Byron Lee every day or a Soca record every day and now I was away at school and for months at a time it was all Neil Young playing in the hallways.
It was just kind of an entirely new and strange kind of feeling that I remember. But it all has an impact you know? And I think that’s what kind of helped with…you know that’s where people’s eclectic sensibilities come from. You know what I mean? Just being exposed to different kinds of things. And I think that’s kind of what did it for my own music because I didn’t really discover singing in of itself until well into adulthood. I never sang in the Church when I was small. Music was around us but I never really sang. The first time I sang publicly, I think it was 20, 21, something like that. I was just messing around with some friends and they encouraged me to do a singing competition and then I did it and I placed well and people were just around me encouraging. That’s all it was, it was just like, “Yeah man! You should just keep doing it! Keep doing it!”
Paul: And what did you sing at the competition?
Jhyve: Oh at the time, “Ordinary People,” John Legend. I had a really good rendition to it, actually kind of proud of myself considering I’d never sang before publicly. It grew out of that, very naturally. There was nobody there driving me to do better. I didn’t have anybody on my back with like a whip. It was something I was allowed to explore for myself. So by the time I was done with school I knew it was something I wanted to do. I went to school for something entirely different and then came back just being like, “Mom, Dad, I want to be a singer.”
Paul: So you mentioned a few people from the ’90s there. Who were some of your other favorites?
Jhyve: I was a huge D’Angelo fan, I still am a massive D’Angelo fan. I remember being like 11 or 12 years old, sitting around a table at dinner and my Mom had just got Brown Sugar and she was playing it. When I first heard Brown Sugar and a record like “Shit Damn Motherfucker” (chuckle). . . “When We Get By”. . . Classics man. And I think the reason he took off so much is because again people got the sense that R&B was just not. . . after Teddy Riley and that whole New Jack Swing kind of sound with the snares and all of that. . . I think D’Angelo was refreshing. There were bands like TLC that were coming out and doing that. There was a lot of stuff happening around that and I think he was in his own space. It was unapologetically R&B and unapologetically Jazz. He seemed like the coolest dude in the world too. Like when you listen to “Brown Sugar,” if I met him I’d tell him “You just seem like the coolest guy.” Just his delivery, you know? So I’d have to say him and then stuff like The Fugees even. I’m a huge Lauryn Hill fan, absolutely massive Lauryn Hill fan too, another one of my biggest inspirations. But as far as the early ’90s go, it was mostly Michael Jackson, it was anything coming out of Bad Boy so even like Faith Evans or stuff like that.
Paul: And who do you like at the moment?
Jhyve: At the moment it’s weird because to be totally honest, I am more a Hip Hop head than an R&B fan. I’m a huge, huge Hip Hop guy. Just because I think I noticed, I guess before R&B went through the shift, I noticed the same thing about R&B that you did. I just kind of got disenchanted by it. There were a couple of bright lights. I still remember where I was when I first heard Amy Winehouse’s Frank… having to pick my jaw up off the floor when I heard that shit. Like “Wow! Where is this from? Who’s doing this?” Through the last couple of years I just kind of moved away from it ’cause as much as I appreciate some of that stuff I feel like the guy who’s making R&B records that doesn’t listen to a ton of R&B. Which is kind of on its face a little weird sounding, but you know, that’s why I think R&B can be broad because I’m not trying to be what R&B was.
Paul: What Hip Hop do you like at the moment then?
Jhyve: I’m a huge Kendrick fan. I’m a huge Action Bronson fan. A lot of times anything weird. I remember being blown away when I saw Tyler The Creator’s first video for “Yonkers.”
Jhyve: I’m into anything that really kind of steps out as remarkably different. It still has to be well executed but I think I’m just a fan of anything that’s not afraid to be what it is and does it well. That’s really true of any artform; it just hasn’t been true of R&B in a while. So lately I’m a huge fan of people like Miguel or Frank Ocean, The Weeknd. I’m a huge AlunaGeorge fan. Anything in R&B now that’s just kind of off in its own little pocket doing its thing. I support all of that, you know? With me it’s all about finding your own way to do it and executing to the best of your ability. You can make a song that’s about absolutely nothing deep, nothing important, and still make it a great song. You just have to do it in a way that really clearly sends that message to people.
Paul: Bob Dylan was talking about “Most of the Time” from Oh, Mercy and he hated it. Hated the song. Daniel Lanois took it and did all his stuff with it and turned it. His problem with it was, “Oh it’s about nothing.” But by executing it well you make it about something. If it was about nothing on paper, now it’s about something ’cause it’s about being a good song.
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/.