Thundercat: The Good, The Bad and the Dragonball Durag
Thundercat’s new record, It Is What It Is, could easily have dealt in understandable resignation, but there’s real courage behind his cautiously optimistic acceptance.
Thundercat is “taking it easy” – at least, he tells me as much.
It’s difficult not to interrogate it a little, given Stephen Bruner’s propensity for modesty. Over the course of the last decade, Bruner has emerged from the streets of Los Angeles as a prodigious Sa-Ra disciple, sliding from Erykah Badu to Flying Lotus with the ease of his fingers on the frets. He underwrote one of the greatest hip-hop records of our age; courted jazz fans alongside his friends Kamasi Washington, Cam Graves and Terrace Martin; became a bassy backbone of Brainfeeder, the revered independent label started by FlyLo; and through them, released a string of solo records, each more acclaimed than the one before. What does taking it easy even look like for a prodigy who’s ever in-demand?
“Watching lots of cartoons playing video games,” he says, more a given than an admission: over the past decade, Bruner’s lyrically waxed on Neon Genesis Evangelion, Fist of the North Star, and – above all else – Dragonball Z, and his passions for toons informed the very moniker by which he’s known. “Getting ready for tour,” he added, his enthusiasm a little sadder in hindsight. “I'm looking forward to it for sure, I'm definitely ready to go.”
It’s something that any passing fan could attest to: once you’ve seen Thundercat wield a bass, it’s almost difficult to imagine him as anything but prepared. His fingers move with a dextrous technical command; his mind piecing together licks and riffs as sudden as they are virtuosic. It’s easy to frame that kind of proficiency as a product of his longstanding jazz interest, but boxing it in would betray the man behind the brilliance: on picking up the bass aged four, Bruner set in sequence a whirlwind journey throughout Los Angeles, one that would see a fresh-faced 15-year-old play for thrash outfit Suicidal Tendencies, a seasoned 20-year-old slip into jazz, and a fledgling soul man link up with one of the city’s generation-defining collectives.
“I feel that they were there for some of the more important years of my development,” he says of his time with Sa-Ra Creative Partners, spent in the company of Om’Mas Keith, Taz Arnold, Shafiq Husayn and their ever-evolving roster of West Coast talent. “They were like older brothers to me, especially Shafiq Husayn... you know, he used to tell me I was like Fred Hampton a lot,” he recalled fondly. Those recollections paint a picture of not only youthful enthusiasm, but mature guidance, facilitated by the ever-freed perspectives of the trio. “It's very encouraging, giving me a place and an outlet to work and create and, at the same time, feel like something more than just a bass player. I very much felt a part of Sa-Ra, even though I wasn't in the photos and all the stuff, I very much felt like I was like the fourth member in the group, you know?”
It’s that rapport that saw Steve Bruner – as he was then credited – appear three times on 2007’s The Hollywood Recordings, twelve times on 2009’s Nuclear Evolution: The Age Of Love, and fourteen times on Shafiq’s own Shafiq En' A-Free-Ka, that deepening rapport shaping his own musical identity. “The feelings that I got around the music that was being created; the joy that I experienced working with them, it was a very special place to me, because that's where I became Thundercat. It was at the Sa-Ra house.”
His is an uncommonly intimate bond, but Bruner is far from alone in his Sa-Ra gratitude. “There are a lot of us that are kind of children of that, you know? Ty Dolla Sign, Jay-Z, Georgia Muldrow... all kinds of different artists! Erykah, Bilal, you know, J Dilla even at one point filed through the house. Mos Def, Goapele… it was very much an intense experience for everybody from LA, and also everybody coming to LA.” It’s the Sa-Ra house that acquainted the pre-moniker bassist with Erykah Badu, the iconic songstress with whom he’d collaborate through the late ‘00s, bringing the first hints of recognition to his comic book mantle.
“They represent such a beautiful part of the music and the art to all of us, and they still do,” he says, the net cast wide over the disparate class of LA alumni. “I think one of the funnier moments in this was the part where I was hanging out with Matt Martins from The Internet, and Steve and everybody, and they were playing all these old records, and they didn't even realize that it was me playing on a lot of them,” he tells me, still amused. “It was a weird moment, and I forget that that was such a big moment for LA. I still am in contact with them to different degrees… it's just a different point in life. Everything's different.”
If Bruner’s new record, It Is What It Is, didn’t wear that contention as a badge of honour, it might’ve just embraced the equally-pithy “everything’s different.” It’s another piece of deceptively sage wisdom; the kind of demonstrably true utterance you’d be just as likely to get from a stoner uncle or a world-weary friend. There’s a lot of space in “it is what it is,” as there is in “everything’s different” – both seem to acknowledge the impermanence of any one state, ceding control of the ‘present’ to the intangible forces we seldom consider. If Sa-Ra were a musical influence on a young Bruner, then those twists of fate have proven similarly transformative for Thundercat.
The same changes that have rendered the Sa-Ra summers a distant memory have underwritten It Is What It Is, as much a culmination of his ever-expanding solo artistry as a distinct reflection on the last few years. If the last decade saw Bruner stepping into his own space, carving an uncommon niche as a solo bassist, it also saw him grappling with tragedy: in 2012, the sudden loss of Austin Peralta, and in 2019, the shocking death of Mac Miller. It’s an age of stratospheric highs and subterranean lows, and musically, Thundercat has long dealt in those two extremes.
It Is What It Is is an album of upheaval, more measured than Drunk - Thundercat's last record - but similarly laced with moments of both outright humour and melancholy reflection. That distinction breaks through in the singles, too, with Black Qualls, a candid, confessional soul-funk jam featuring Steve Lacy, Steve Arrington and – on the album version – a recently-returned Donald Glover, serious if only by comparison to Dragonball Durag, a sex-jam salute to confidence-inspiring anime headwear.
“I’ve always been a big advocate of ‘the first idea was the right idea,’” he says o Durag, a track he deliberately chose to lyrically conserve. “I think this is one of the special moments we can afford as artists: it's like, ‘what do you instinctively go to?’ I enjoy that part because it's a bit of no man's land in one respect, because sometimes you can surprise yourself with that type of approach to stuff, but at the same time, if you let it be what it is, it develops its own life and legs too.” Any Thundercat fan could tell you that Dragonball is certainly a first instinct – “I have a number of Dragonball tatts,” he tells me, “there's several!” – and it’s through his piety to that original idea that the song started to take shape. “I think that in this specific case with [Dragonball Durag], even for me, where I said sometimes I don't shy away from the silly thing, I think that that’s a means to something, sometimes.”
“The silly thing” has proven a vehicle for substance more than a handful of times: A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II), for instance, finds loving appreciation and fantastic refuge in a meow-laden dedication to his cat, and Show You The Way – Drunk’s hammy yacht rock single starring Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald – cloaks tender reassurance in the genre’s trademark showboating sheen. “That's what Durag is for me. It tells a story of something, to some degree, and it's also got a very silly overtone to it, but the truth is it's something very special.”
King of the Hill finds Bruner counselling the titular regent, a ruler with little power over even his own domain. “You say you ain't got time for games / but the world got time for games with you,” he begins, closing the fleeting tale with a distinct lack of resolution: “I've seen a lot of things come and go / Lots of pimps and tons of hoes / How this ends, we'll never know.” That unknowable ending has long been a fascination for Bruner, with 2017’s Drunk ending on a similarly forlorn note – “where this ends, we'll never know” – and 2015’s The Beyond / Where The Giants Roam dealing exclusively in the moments following that curtain call. The track is just as much an example of those mysterious ends, releasing in 2018 only to end up at the heart of this then-distant record.
“At first, we didn't know where to place it because it was somewhere between going in the cartoon with Shinchiro Watanabe,” he says of the track, originally a single for label compilation Brainfeeder X. The cartoon in question is Carole & Tuesday, a Bruner-featuring anime series from the director of Thundercat favourite Cowboy Bebop, as well as a recent Flying Lotus video. “It was a bit of a weird toss-up because it was like, ‘Well, do we put it on the album or do we just allow it to be on the soundtrack?’ Between me and Lotus, we decided that it should go on the album… I think there's something special about what it does.”
Special, too, is his relationship with Louis Cole. You can gleam as much from I Love Louis Cole, a propulsive, party-tinged dedication to the collaborator and fellow Brainfeeder signee with credits on Bus In These Streets and Jameel’s Space Ride. “Me and Louis Cole met because of Austin Peralta,” he explains, their rapport borne of yet another storied relationship. “They both went to Crossroads, it's an amazing music school in Los Angeles. We met in a very funny way too: Austin bamboozled us into doing a gig together first before we even knew each other! It was really funny.”
“We're both very fucking grateful to him for doing that, because if he didn't do that, you know, we wouldn't have had a chance to meet each other in such a manner.” Their rapport might only strike in a few choice cuts, but the friendship between the pair cuts far deeper than wax, distilled in a strikingly conversational phrase: “It’s just more fun when you come around / Even if I act up, you let me know that I’m not crazy.” It’s a lyric that wouldn’t be out-of-place in an indulgent love song, but tethered to a brotherly bond, it’s all the more honest. “Ever since the moment we got a chance to sit down and play, we both were like, ‘Oh!’ We saw each other and we're like, "Okay, I know what time it is!" You know, that's never changed.”
If that unchanging rapport came courtesy of Austin, then Pedro Martins – featured on title track It Is What It Is – was another link in the same chain. “I met Pedro through mutual acquaintance, Genevieve Artadi,” he explains, crediting Cole’s KNOWER bandmate. “She introduced me to him, I think at a Louis Cole show, and it was cool because again, I knew of his work, and he knew of mine, and we just knew that there was something there to be done… we just started working immediately.”
Slower going was Bruner’s collaboration with Lil B, a long-overdue link-up only realized in the wake of Mac’s death. “We met on the internet. I mean, he's a very open person,” he says, underselling the opacity of the hailed hip-hop innovator and his noted Twitter presence. “The internet is such a weird place. You know, we just saw that one TV show, Don't Fuck With Cats, and the internet can be a really weird place like that. Lil B, we connected over the internet, and he kinda knew a bit of my work, and of course, I know a ton of Lil B's work, and I think that at some point it just turned into 'we should get a chance to work together,' you know?” It was a long time coming, if not for The Based God, then for Thundercat, who’s been showering the emcee with love for the better part of a decade. “I know he was very busy – always very busy, he's kinda always mid-sentence, he's always doing stuff – and I didn't know, or he didn't know, how it would translate.”
“It is very unfortunate, the circumstances under which we would start to come together,” he recalled, the pair brought together by the sudden death of mutual friend and collaborator Mac Miller. It’s a link that underpins Fair Chance, a sombre reflection that finds Bruner, Lil B and Ty Dollar Sign grappling with that lingering loss. Ty’s verse comprises entirely of phrases from What’s The Use? and Small Worlds, two of Mac’s last releases, and Lil B floats atop an intricate bass with the veiled poetics that so endeared him to the late emcee. Thundercat bookends the track with a frank, confessional refrain: “So hard to get over it / I've tried to get under it / Stuck in between, it is what it is…”
Don’t confuse his acceptance with resignation. “I'm not sure of what's coming' next / But I'll be alright,” he croons moments later on Existential Dread, a fragment as short and sharp as the onset of that very angst. “I mean, I have faith a bit, you know? I believe in God, I believe that things are difficult, but they've always been difficult,” he explains, charting his hope in the face of adversity. “I'm not the first person to have these problems. Greater men have had greater problems, so I know that I'm not alone, even if I feel alone, you know? But a lot of the time... you don't know. You don't know. It feels like that. Sometimes you just need to tell yourself that.”
It’s the very nature of faith, and yet, there’s something to be said for the conviction. That fleeting moment of optimism gives way to It Is What It Is, the title track doubling as a powerful closing statement. “It's just kind of like me taking this time to say goodbye to a different part of my life, my best friend's passing,” he says of the close, an extended instrumental passage sparked by just two words: “Hey, Mac.” “I think it's one of the more painful moments for me, honestly.” It’s a pain that breaks through in his cathartic lyrics, oriented about his titular philosophy:
“Sometimes there's regret /
It is what it is /
It couldn't be helped /
So many things I wanna say /
This is the end…”
“A lot of the time, it's just the feelings, they come out a lot in the music,” he admits, the elation and despair mined from his own day-to-day. “I think this is what life is for me, you know? I think to some degree, pain and joy, extreme highs and extreme lows, snipes and gutters... it's just––.” Words fail. “I don't know so much.” It’s that uncertain embrace that hits home, an acceptance that relinquishes those unanswerable questions. “That's why I named the album It Is What It Is: you just have to take the bad with the good.”
It’s a name as much as a philosophy, the phrase scattered throughout the record, crystallizing on the soul-wrenching b-side. The album deals in both the bad and good, walking the same delicate line as life itself: often painful, frequently hilarious, ever-chaotic and sometimes absurd. Where one could easily concede defeat with the very same utterance, Bruner has found a cautiously optimistic acceptance in the truism, one underwritten by faith and fraternity.
It’s laced with friendships fostered by Austin and Mac; graced with a musicality shaped in moments since passed; imprinted with a mournful acceptance of the highs and the lows that life ensures. Bruner’s left us with a truth that’s even more salient now that it was when he imparted it, since cropping up in conversation, lacing discussions and punctuating asides with a will of its own. Sometimes, there is no better explanation. Sometimes, it’s a simple concession to a relentless world. Sometimes, our questions are unanswerable, reminders of our own insistence in this oft-inexplicable world. It doesn’t always make sense. It doesn’t always have to.
It is what it is.
Thundercat's new album, It Is What It Is, is out April 3rd via Brainfeeder.
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