Meet Thundercat, the Jazz-Fusion Genius Behind Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Butterfly’
Shortly after good kid, m.A.A.d. city‘s buzz died down, Lamar’s team called Thundercat to play bass on a track that never made the finished album. “It was part of the process. He knew my history a little bit, but was also figuring it out how it applied,” Thundercat says.
He began collaborating in earnest with TDE in-house producer, Sounwave. They’d bring Lamar sketches in passing and eventually it snowballed to where his Stanley Clarke-scoring-Naruto basslines became an integral component of the album. They’re unmistakable, gurgling, trampoline somersaulting licks that elevate the album’s heavy themes. Alpha Centauri by way of South Central.
Beyond calculable measures, Thundercat shaped the sound of To Pimp a Butterfly. He’d pull up old records in the studio, furnishing an advanced-level jazz seminar for Lamar: Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Mary Lou Williams and Miles Davis.
“We went down some lines, a little bit of lineage. I tried to inspire him where he inspired me,” Thundercat says between sips of Sprite.
“I played him Miles Davis’ ‘Little Church’ and he was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I was like, ‘This is Miles Davis, man — and one of his baddest records.’ He was always like, ‘I gotta come to your house and take this stuff off your hands.'”
The sonic direction tilted again after Lamar overheard Thundercat bump a track from the never-released 2006 Sa-Ra album, Black Fuzz. Immediately inspired, Lamar made the bassist bring in Sa-Ra’s Taz Arnold, who eventually produced “u,” “For Sale (Interlude)” and “Momma.”
When Thundercat talks about Lamar, you sense a genuine awe. “I’ve never been around a person like that. He was so freed up to the point that he didn’t care. It would sound so weird, but he would risk it,” he says. “I’ve spent so much time around cats that try so hard to be this one thing. With him it was effortless and fast… always in the moment and on the seat of his pants.”
Thundercat mentions the session for “Mortal Man,” where Lamar walked in shortly after he and Sounwave had just finished the instrumental.
“We played it for him and he just stood there listening for a second. . .playing with his hair,” Thundercat continues. “Then he goes, ‘It sounds like someone did this to you,’ and described everything what had just happened to me, without knowing anything about it. I just sat there quietly like, ‘This motherfucker is on point.’
Thundercat doesn’t speak with the academic seriousness you might expect from a serious modern jazz player. Even though he’s a music encyclopedia, he would clearly prefer to talk about comedy or anime. He recently played L.A.’s Wiltern with Hannibal Buress and is ready to tick off his favorite all-time comics without much prodding: Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney, the Wayans Brothers, Louis C.K., Zack Galifianakis, Dave Chappelle, Mel Brooks. That’s the short list. Thundercat’s explicit extra-musical goal was to get Lamar to laugh at least once during the sessions — he proudly says he managed it by the time they got to mastering.
While few expected Thundercat to be at the creative epicenter of the Number One album in the country, his peers have long raved about his preternatural talent and vision.
“He’ll play you a piece of a song and you’ll go, ‘OK,’ and then he’ll suddenly add the melody in and it becomes this brilliant thing,” says his long-time friend and collaborator, the saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who plays tenor on “u.” “It’s like seeing a great painter with a canvas that looks like a lot of nothing, and then one little stroke goes and you’re like, ‘Wow you saw that the whole time?” He hears things in songs that other people don’t hear.”
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