Thundercat finds a place for bass

Raphael Saadiq and Snoop may not be fans, but Dr Dre gets it, and a new generation of rappers are inspiring this serial collaborator

If you're a session bassist, the following things are de rigueur: 1) Servitude to the guitarist/singer 2) Constant extension of your neck like an inquisitive goose until you overdevelop your sternocleidomastoids 3) Doing a ridiculous slapped solo as the singer introduces you as something like "Fudge Sauce".

This set-up can be difficult for a creatively restless performer such as Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner, who's played bass with everyone from smooth R&B gent Miguel to punks Suicidal Tendencies. Instead of laying down plodding rock-steady lines, his riffs gad about with squirrelly industry, something that hasn't impressed his more single-minded collaborators. "I don't look at my instrument as having one specific role; I was raised to go as far as you can," he says. "But Raphael Saadiq hated my bass. He told me to throw it away. And playing in Snoop's band, there was a time when my bass was more annoying to everyone than helpful. They would get on my case: 'Can you make your bass sound like more of a bass?'"

Thundercat is not a fan of such literal thinking. "When you put a top on something and try to bottle it, that's when it dies," he says. "As soon as they called it 'funk music' they killed it. Now it's been institutionalised, people think of 'jazz music' as old. The only reason that 'rock' is still relevant is because it involves sex and drugs. And I'm a big rock fan."

Fittingly, his own excellent new solo album, Apocalypse, gambols freely through all of these genres, and more. Yet despite now having his own creative outlet, Thundercat has continued to collaborate; he says it's his way of staying nimble. "You have to share the space with people," he says. "Because of how personal music is, you always get married to what you're doing. But Erykah Badu [another Thundercat employer] would always say, 'Get out your mind and come out here with everybody else.'"

His main foil these days is fellow genre dissolver Flying Lotus. "When he'll be trying to find drums, I'll be playing; when he's finding a frequency I'll be changing my bass tone to match where he's at. It's that spontaneous. Some of the best songs we've written together just came up like vomit. Me and Lotus were hanging out with Dr Dre and he said, 'I've never done anything by myself, it's always been a collaborative effort', and we were like, 'Whoa, he gets it!'"

Luckily, Thundercat sees a new generation of rappers out there who he reckons might be more open than Snoop to a hit of cosmic bass. "Tyler, The Creator and Lil B, they're blurring the lines," he says. "And Drake and Lil Wayne; rappers are singing again, it's beautiful. I love Drake's music. He's not a jazz singer, it's almost animalistic. Why do we think the 70s were so awesome? That 'freeness' of music was there. You can see it peering around again."

Apocalypse is out now and Thundercat plays XOYO, EC2, Wed 10 Jul


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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