Tank and The Bangas
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General admission standing room only.
Tank and The Bangas don’t go anywhere quietly. Sitting around a dimly lit room in London’s neighborhood of Camden Town, vocalist Tank Ball, bassist Norman Spence, drummer Joshua Johnson and saxophonist Albert Allenback can’t go mere minutes without bursting into play fights, or talking over one another, or laughing from their deepest guts. They are a beacon of life. And it’s that life that you hear in their music. That’s what makes this fivepiece one of the most thrilling, unpredictable and sonically diverse bands on the planet; a unit where jazz meets hip-hop, soul meets rock, and funk is the beating heart of everything they do. Their new album Green Balloon is on the horizon, and it’s their first release now they’re signed to major label Verve Forecast – a deal that came after they won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2017, beating out hundreds of other acts. They admit that it was a moment that has entirely changed their lives. This resulting record is set to prove their pizazz and their staying power. It’s everything they’ve worked so hard for so far.
Green Balloon is a multi-faceted title for their first full-length release since Think Tank in 2013. Think Tank was a case of throwing all their creative juices and ideas to at the wall to see what stuck. It was a DIY project. This album process was a world apart from that. “Green Balloon is a sister to Think Tank,” says Tank. “Think Tank was 12, and Green Balloon is 16 and having sex. She’s out there.” Made in New Orleans, Los Angeles, London and Florida, the band’s newfound critical acclaim and global notoriety meant they were able to call upon producers such as Jack Splash, Mark Batson, Zaytoven, Louie Lastic and Robert Glasper. Some of these names were on their bucket wishlist, others were new discoveries. “It was truly a dream to us. We’re so lucky,” says Tank. Green Balloon and many of its lyrical themes may seem to revolve around money and material (“money, look at all my money” starts ‘Spaceships’), but it’s far more complex than that. The color is explored throughout the tracks.
It’s not quite a full concept album, but there are interludes and a story arc. Tank explains that in New Orleans a common phrase is “she’s as green as a blade of grass”. “Green is about being naïve,” she explains. “You could be immature, new to life and experiences.” Green is also a reference to marijuana, which is vital to the band. “Feeling high, feeling out of yourself, feeling different,” she continues. Take the track “Too High,” which is almost two minutes of Tank just talking about weed consumption. In terms of wealth, Tank is as interested in what it means to not have money as she is with knowing what you do with money when you’ve never had it. It’s fitting too, that the idea of naivety pertains to the experience of Tank and The Bangas in the past few years while elevating from underground treasures to internationally renowned professionals. “It’s been a learning curve and a journey,” they admit. “We went to a whole different dimension.”
The founding members of the band (Tank, Josh and Norman) met at an open mic night in New Orleans in 2011 called Liberation Lounge. Tank had wanted Josh to write out songs she’d already written for a poetry album. Eventually they met Albert. A family of musical lifers, none of them ever thought twice about quitting through years and years of grinding it out on local live circuits. That time gave them the best foundation for their onstage chemistry and dexterity. As a result they’ve been heralded the best live band in America and for good reason.
It was the NPR contest that turned their world upside down. They were already accustomed to winning competitions but they had no expectations for their entry. Their submission is an example of their need for more discipline – they did it at the very last minute. “We weren’t expecting to win or not to win. We did something we thought was really cool and we thought everybody would vibe with it, but we didn’t know it would change our lives. It was our moment. They picked us unanimously.” They went from traveling to the likes of Chicago to play to three or four people, to touring all over the world, and getting to enjoy downtime at home in New Orleans. It led to the album-making process.
On the record, they have overcome their biggest challenges to date: deadlines, forward-planning and outsider collaboration. The reward is in the songs and their variety. “Dope Girl Magic” is a trap joint, showcasing the other side to Tank, as she raps with as many character voices as Missy Elliott or Nicki Minaj. “Ants” is dripping in soul jazz like Amy Winehouse’s “Frank.” “Hot Air Balloons” is a slow jam straight out of the D’Angelo school book. Tank is a former slam poet and her voice is inspired by everyone from Donny Hathaway and SWV to Nina Simone. Their biggest collective influence in the past few years has been Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. “It’s the best shit you’ve ever heard. A lot of people aren’t accustomed to horns, but if you give them a tiny taste you can whet their appetite. That record brought an eclectic view to what music could be as mainstream.”
Tank is lead lyricist and describes her focus on these songs as simply honesty. “Being vulnerable,” she says. “I had a lot of moments on this album where it would get difficult and I would call in reinforcements, like my band members. Whenever I was in a tough spot I’d call on the guys.” It’s a self-reflective diary, a mixture of fun and joy, but also a catharsis while dealing with a complicated ex. “Roll out, take your bra off,” she laughs, depicting her attitude to life in these songs. The creative process was often spur-of-the-moment and out of the blue. The biggest thing they learned about one another in the studio was more of a reinforcement than a revelation. They found new depths of appreciation for each others’ creativity. “I’m around a bunch of freaking geniuses,” says Tank.
“We’re really vibe-y as a band,” they explain of their approach to studio time. They’d arrive to sessions with an idea of what they wanted but it was never strict enough to derail them from jamming and going with the flow. Their songs come whenever, usually during rehearsals and sound checks. It’s purely organic. “It’s a puzzle and everybody needs to be there to solve it,” says Tank. Their mixture of rock, funk, soul and hip-hop is unlike anything else in the ether right now, but elements are close enough to Beyonce, Frank Ocean, Flying Lotus, Kendrick, etc, that the hope is they can infiltrate the mainstream. They don’t connect with the idea of genre, which is thoroughly modern in itself.
“It’s like colors or something,” they say. “Everything we’re influenced by we don’t have a problem putting on a record because we don’t feel like we’re stuck in one lane.” Tank agrees: “When we’re creating, we are creating. We never say: that sounded too blues-y, that sounded too country, that’s too hip-hop. It’s just that’s what this feels like, so let’s push that feeling to its completion, make it feel good.” Tank and The Bangas are the vein of band to believe that there are only two types of music: good music, or bad music. “If it’s good, it’s good!” says Tank.
Despite their newfound global focus, Tank and The Bangas remain a New Orleans band at heart. New Orleans is a lawless place for creatives – there are no rules. There might be an idea of the typical Frenchmen St jazz band but to couch this band’s work in that notion is to do both them and NOLA a grand disservice. ”You don’t need to do a certain type of music to be connected to New Orleans,” says Tank. “It’s in the culture, it’s in the people, it’s in the fact that we can all find so many common things in the streets.” New Orleans champions its own, which allowed Tank and The Bangas to grow their fanbase by word of mouth and community. “That’s more New Orleans than anything I’ve ever heard. The music in New Orleans isn’t technical, it’s not a bunch of fancy ass notes. It’s felt and it’s very passionate. It’s real. That’s what people get to take home.”
It makes sense that the next person they have on their dream list to work with is legendary musician George Clinton. “Just putting it out there,” laughs Tank. Overall, the band are no longer waiting for their own green light to get going. The green light is here, and you better believe Tank and The Bangas are ready to take flight.
Richmond, Virginia-based artist McKinley Dixon has always used his music as a tool for healing, exploring, and unpacking the Black experience in order to create stories for others like him. On his previous two self-released albums, Dixon’s songs looked at concepts ranging from self-love to police brutality, and the complex trauma Black people navigate collectively and as individuals. For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her, Dixon’s debut album on Spacebomb, is the culmination of a journey where heartbreak and introspection challenged him to adapt new ways of communicating physically and mentally, as well as across time and space.
"Black people have an ability to talk about the concept of home—meaning communities, blocks, hoods—from a really thorough place because of those concepts' connection to Blackness. That ability, and sort of already internalized and in place language, allows for the speaker (rapper) to exist in their current setting, while also being able to reminisce, dissect, and discuss their past,” says Dixon explaining the idea of rap as a form of time travel. “If time is ‘non-linear,’ what is stopping me from going back to process the past? I am here now, having learned what I have, and because of that I am able to go back and figure out patterns and trajectories to see better how I've gotten to this point. And to see what I can do differently for the community and people around me in the future to make where we're going, together, better. For me and other Black folks, when you hear rap music, you are then able to take those moments in the music and apply them to your own life and patterns. It's a glimpse into the worlds of others that look like you, and it allows you to feel a sense of belonging—and in a way, a sense of home. Rap music has a very sturdy trajectory of 'I want to be somewhere else, one day I'll be somewhere else, and I’ll take my whole community with me.'"
This unique concept of musical time travel elevates the storytelling on For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her as it moves through different stages of Dixon unpacking and processing his surroundings. The new album, which is the third piece of a trilogy, finds Dixon working through inner demons, complex relationships with religion, and trying to make sense of mortality for Black peoples. This winding road of turmoil is only amplified by a deeper pain he’s still finding the language to work through: in 2018, his best friend was tragically killed. In the context of just being Black and living in this world, “musical time travel” has become a way for Dixon to dissect traumatic timelines and pave his own road to processing, healing, and survival. “The album is me processing for myself now, and for my younger self,” explains Dixon. “It’s also a conversation to my homie who died, who didn’t have access to the same things as I did—didn’t have access to music, therapy, books.” With Black death constantly happening on a news cycle, within neighborhoods, and within families, processing has never had a specific start and end point. These 11 songs are a way for Dixon to cycle through fragmented memories and unclosed chapters, and begin to reconcile where these stories of racism, death, and trauma live on the new timeline he’s created for himself.
“The language accessibility aspect of this project draws right back to communication and connecting,” Dixon explains. “I think about the messaging, and how this can be a way for another Black person, someone who looks like me, to listen to this and process the past. Everything I've learned about communication for this album culminates with this bigger question about time. Is time linear when you’re still healing and processing? Westerners look at time travel as something to conquer or control—it's a colonizer mindset. That’s ignoring how time travel can be done through stories and non-verbal communication, and doesn't acknowledge how close indigenous people are to the land and the connections groups have because they’ve existed somewhere for so long. Storytelling is time travel, it's taking the listener to that place. Quick time travel. Magic. These raps I’m making are no different than stories told around the campfire. They elongate the culture.”
The origins of For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her go back almost three years, beginning with a song written in 2017 called “Chain Sooo Heavy.” Having worked with over 30 instrumentalists on his last record, Dixon formed a more solid band to bring this album to life. Never relying solely on beats, Dixon continues to tap into a hybrid of jazz and rap, pulling in an array of piercing strings, soulful horns, percussion, and angelic vocalists throughout the album—plus features by Micah James, Lord Jah-Monte Ogbon, Pink Siifu, and more. Jazz instrumentals add a level of uncertainty, with the sounds and shifts evoking a lot of emotion and vulnerability. It’s an energy he describes as “Pre-Kendrick Lamar To Pimp A Butterfly,” the era when rap adopted more live instrumentation.
When Dixon is trying to find the words to describe a moment, he draws inspiration directly from literature. “Called for Jesus/Now I’m gonna curse his daddy,” from “B.B.N.E.”, was inspired by renowned novelist Toni Morrison, an influence who shows up throughout the album. “I’ve got so many of her books. Reading her work gives me the language needed to access this version of musical time travel I’ve been talking about. I’ll open up a Toni Morrison book, read it, and try to find sentences where she’s trying to describe what I’m feeling and I’ll go from there.”
“Bless the Child” evokes the strongest sense of Dixon tracing patterns through time. Shifting through three beat switches, it’s a figurative shrine of past thoughts and feelings around his friend’s untimely passing. “The tone with the beat switch allows me to shift from being in the past with these memories, to the present right now where I’m very conflicted, and ends in the future with me, the artist, processing it all,” he explains. “The song is a literal translation of my homie’s passing and how I’m processing it. It’s a mixture of sentiments and asking myself what it means to ‘do it for them’ at this point.”
For My Mama And Anyone Who Look Like Her challenges Black people to revisit more than one timeline and question everything they’ve been taught about processing grief in order to rebuild their present and future selves. There’s no definitive end to the darkness and trauma of the past, but this album is a stepping stone in Dixon’s pursuit of moving forward, and being a voice for Black people still learning how to advocate for themselves.
“The best way to sum up this album is: I was sad, I was mad, and now I’m alive,” Dixon explains. “These things I talk about on the record have had harmful and brilliant effects on my timeline, and have forced me to be cognizant of the fact that living is complex. Rap has allowed me the language to communicate, and be someone who can communicate with people from all over. Knowing how far I’ve come, I think people will find trust in the message I’m sending.”
— Max Mohenu
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