First Look Friday: Drummer Mike Mitchell Wants To Make "Wild Ass, Next Level Jazz Music"
“The shit that’s pushed and more represented in jazz is the old swing shit, which is badass. But nobody gives a fuck about swing no more. We on some new shit.”
The statement, made by drummer Mike Mitchell (also known as Blaque Dynamite) when I spoke with him almost two Novembers ago, embodied his frustrations with jazz music, a genre he champions and loves that is often seen as outdated or, as Mitchell puts it, like “old people’s wine tasting music.”
Since its inception in the late 19th century, jazz has reinvented itself countless times. Musicians like Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Ornette Coleman contributed to the genre’s more experimental tendencies, showing that jazz could be more than swing — it could be a fusion of sounds from multiple genres.
Mitchell is a part of that evolution — a musician who acknowledges the pioneers of jazz while challenging the idea of what the genre is and can be. The 23-year-old artist is a wunderkind; he started playing drums when he was two and was an endorsed drummer by the time he was 11. At 14, he began attending the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas, the same school that Erykah Badu, Roy Hargrove, and Norah Jones attended. His performance credits include Badu, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, Willow Smith, and others.
All of this has culminated to the point Mitchell is currently at — creating cross-genre new music with his friends back in Dallas, as well as working on his own music. He’s released two albums — 2015’s WiFi and 2017’s Killing Bugs — and recently debuted his “mostly female-driven…thrash R&B band” The Murder Angels at this year’s Winter Jazzfest in New York City. The short but impressive set found Mitchell leading young musicians Alissia Benveniste (bass); Domi Degalle and Maya Kronfeld (keys); Lunar Rae (drums and percussion); and India Spice and J. Hoard (vocals). He’s currently working on a new album, too, and constantly working with artists a part of Dolfin Records. The Dallas-based record label includes Jon Bap (Mitchell played drums on his album What Now?), (Liv).e, juuwah, Ben Hixon, and others.
As a part of our First Look Friday series, Mitchell spoke with Okayplayer about his new album, the inspiration behind creating The Murder Angels, J Dilla’s impact on drum culture, and his favorite love song. He also premiered a demo from Killing Bugs — the standout track “Dear 5/29/94,” with this version featuring Hixon, Bap and Mitchell.
What have you started working on since releasing Killing Bugs?
This new shit that I got now is the idea of how Miles Davis had the electric band. He had the quintet — I’m going for that similar vibe where you get to hear me in a bunch of different spaces. I’ll have a jazz trio where it’ll be me an acoustic bass or saxophone or organ and guitar, like Tony Williams’ Lifetime, but a jazz trio. We’re still going to play the wildest shit that we can think of, but it’s a homage to that jazz trio tradition. Then there’s Raché, which is the electric band and superfusion, and The Murder Angels, which is a mix of art thrash and R&B. All the stuff me and Ben [Hixon] have been working on has been catering to things like that.
How is it working on three different albums at once?
They’re all on the same album; I got three different sounds that I’m trying to make conducive for a record.
What led to you wanting to put it all on one album?
I don’t wanna do an EP because I already have two full albums out. If you go through John Coltrane’s discography or Miles Davis’ discography or Tony Williams’ or Elvin Jones’ they all got a lot of records. They were spitting them out. I record way differently than they do obviously. We got computers, and they were just playing and recording versus. I come from more of a production standpoint for creating music for the album, so it’s a bit longer of a process. But I just want to spit out an album every couple of years. Put another album out and tour for a year. That’s our system as new generation artists because you can’t really make money off of the music you’re selling.
Who have you worked with for the album?
I did some stuff with Taylor Graves — he writes a lot with Wiz Khalifa and used to write with Mac Miller. He writes a lot with Thundercat — they grew up in LA together. I’ve been writing stuff with Ben; I got some stuff planned with Jon [Bap]. Lord Byron is gonna be on there. Osun [Liv.e] is gonna be on there. But it’s all really Dallas though. No one really lives in Dallas right now but it’s our sound — the Dolfin Records sound.
How would you define the Dolfin Records sound?
It’s not a genre thing — it’s just if you’re for real or not. You can come into our studio and can be really weird, and if we sense it’s fake we’re gonna be like “Nah that’s wack, you’re corny.” But you can also come in here super weird, and we really know that you’re like that and you’re just a weirdo that makes crazy music. We’ll get with you, because we see you’re not a perpatrator. If you come into the studio and we feel you’re a perpatrator we’re like “Nah we don’t want that.” Because it’s not a real voice.
How would you say the new album differs from Killing Bugs?
Everything is really bare right now — it’s just me and Ben playing keyboards and drums. But the style is hella R&B. I don’t know why — it’s not gonna end up being R&B I’m sure, but it sounds really R&B, which is different for me. When we say we’re gonna go and make something in the studio we go in with a fresh mindset of “What tempo do you wanna start with?” or “What you been listening to?” We don’t have any preconceived idea of what we should be trying to work on. So everything is really fresh and, for some reason, it turned out to be mad R&B. But it sounds like ’80s fusion R&B.
I also have other music that I’m not gonna put on this album that I still wanna play live because some of the songs that we’re gonna be recording we’ve been playing since we were in high school. Like, there are certain songs that we like to play that are old. We were probably like 17 or 18 when we first wrote some of this. Now we’re recording it.
Has that usually been the case? Like you and Ben will figure out a song and then bring in musicians?
Yeah. When I wanna write a song I’ll get with someone who’s a guitar player or keyboard player where I can sing certain things to them and they can decipher for themselves how they interpret it. So I’ll play certain keyboard parts and the other person will play another part. Then I’ll play another part and then I’ll play keyboards and drums and that’s the skeleton of the song. That’s normally what I do. I’m not a proficient keyboard or guitar player, but I can play a little bit and show them what I’m going for.
How long have you known Ben for?
We went to school together — met in the ninth grade. He was in my science class. I don’t think we were in an ensemble at that point. But I’ve known him for 10 years now.
How would you say you and Ben’s artistic relationship has changed throughout the years?
I get on his nerves a lot because I’m a diva. Just bro shit. That’s my boy though. And as far as the way we create music it’s so easy. If you gave us a deadline — “We need three different style albums and we need them in 10 days” — we could get you three albums with probably nine songs on each one. We’ve studied so many styles and he’s really good with the computer and good at understanding what I’m going for when I explain to him a certain sound that I’m hearing. It’s like yin and yang.
What inspired The Murder Angels?
Me and Cameron Graves. We played in Stanley Clarke’s band for like seven years. We were on tour — me, Max, and Cameron were playing as a trio — and we were in Amsterdam just chilling. He was upset because his friends were being shitty. He was like, “Bro, fuck my friends, man. Fuck your friends, dude. You need to leave your friends, man. Actually, Mike, leave your homies, bro. Leave Raché, bro.” I was like, “No, what’re you talking about?” He was like, “Bro. You gotta leave, bro. You need to start a girl band, man. It’d be like Rick James, man. You could do it.” And I was like, “Damn, I could.”
Had you played with the members of the band before?
I hadn’t played with Alissia [Benveniste] but I’ve known her for a second. I’ve known and played with Domi and Maya [Kronfeld] for a while. Lunar [Rae] we had just kicked it and she’s a badass drummer. That’s Terry Baker’s daughter. She lives in Dallas and when I’m in Dallas we kick it all the time. I told her about the project and she was like, “Oh yeah, I’m playing.” It worked out perfect.
How many practices did you have before your performance at Winter Jazzfest?
We only had one rehearsal, the day before the show. We went to Maya’s studio in Brooklyn and practiced from 3 pm to 9 pm. It was cool because everybody was there. But I had sent the music out a few weeks before. I’m pretty loose with people’s interpretation of the music. As long as I know you know the song I feel like you can do whatever you wanna do. They’re all really chill, with my homies it’s always some weird ego battle. Everybody wanna talk shit. There was no talking shit at that rehearsal, it was so peaceful. Like, typically, it’d be six dudes yelling at each other about basketball, whose chick is finer than whose, and who killed harder at the last show. With [The Murder Angels] it was like being in school. They were whipping my ass on some parts.
You haven’t started recording with them yet, right?
Not yet. I’m gonna divide some of the songs between Raché and The Murder Angels. I wanna go for a fusion Rick James and The Maryjane Girls — four cold ass chicks and me in braids looking crazy with a bunch of gold jewelry on. That’s a platform I wish more badass women musicians had. Unfortunately, most women get gigs based upon how they look and those gigs are normally gigs that anyone could do. So they don’t even get to showcase who they are and how they play. If you play with me you can play whatever you want to play.
When it comes to booking shows do you ever find challenges in the jazz community since you’re not abiding by a more traditional sound?
It’s weird. I come from a place of not giving a fuck. I’m coming in here and playing my shit the way I wanna play it. I’m not gonna dumb down my own music for somebody else. I can dumb down my playing for a gig if that’s what’s required for somebody else. But if it’s my music I’m gonna make the decision to play with a crazy keyboard player, a crazy bass player, turn my drums all the way up in the mix and put hella reverb on my mic and make sure all the crowd is lit, because it’s my show. I’ve never been worried about the jazz community. Secondly, I toured with Stanley Clarke for years so all the jazz dudes know I can really do the traditional shit. So they kind of get mad — the older dudes — at how badass it is because they know I can play traditional style jazz and they just think I’m a wildman. But this is just the choice of the music we wanna make. We wanna make wild ass, next level jazz music. Jazz isn’t what it was in the 50s or the 60s and a lot of people my age think of jazz music as old people’s wine tasting music. That’s so wack because the spirit of jazz is to make new shit all the time. For us, this is new.
With J Dilla’s 45th birthday coming up it’s been interesting to see how drummers have emulated his approach and style to beatmaking —
It was like Karriem Riggins, who was the original cat, but it’s Chris Dave who’s single-handedly responsible for bringing it to the forefront. People were playing like that back in the ’90s but not with his interpretation. His interpretation is so very major in the drum community. Even for me, he’s my favorite drummer — him and Tony Williams.
What would you say is your favorite love song of all time and why?
“Holding You, Loving You” by Don Blackman. My uncle played drums on that track, Dennis Chambers. I showed him that and he started laughing. I was like “What’s funny?” And he was like “That’s me, dumbass.” I’ve fucked to that song so many times. Like for an hour, sweating. That song and “Half Crazy” by Musiq Soulchild. And then I have like a whole D’Angelo playlist. But if I put on D’angelo you have to say no I don’t want this because D’Angelo is playing, or we’re making a baby.