Stephen Bruner, AKA Thundercat, is a musical squid. He is capable of fitting into just about any box that he is put into, yet will always leave his unique inky stamp behind. It may seem like an odd metaphor but, looking at Bruner’s staggering résumé, it is a believable one. Whether its joining his brother for a stint in the crossover thrash band Suicidal Tendencies, or being part of the creative nucleus that birthed one of the most revered hip-hop albums of the decade, To Pimp A Butterfly, Thundercat’s versatility is seemingly inexhaustible.
Even before he had released any solo work, Bruner had already gathered an impressive repertoire, featuring on albums for the likes of Erykah Badu (Amerykah) and Flying Lotus (Cosmogramma 2010). When finally, in 2011 he released his first album The Golden Age of Apocalypse on Fly-Lo’s experimental hip-hop label Brainfeeder, it was clear that Thundercat was bringing something brilliant to the jazz/funk/hip-hop table. Drawing inspiration from Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, Bruner makes music that takes traditional elements of jazz and funk, and renews them by adding a unique hip-hop twist.
Is It Love?
When listening to this track it is hard to avoid being drawn into the warm embrace of romantic nostalgia by the echoing, harmonious vocals. However, the fourth track on Thundercat’s debut album The Golden Age of Apocalypse is much more than the dreamy love song that it might at first appear to be. Thundercat’s meticulous bass playing, a sound made even groovier by his much-used envelope filter, and the heartfelt, melodious vocals come together to create a complex tune that serves as an ode to his talent as a budding solo artist.
A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)
As a fellow cat lover and enthusiastic, it would be impossible for me to write a Thundercat Essential Listening without including one of the Tron songs. It is no secret that Thundercat adores his pet cat, Tron, and he has even gone as far as to dedicate two songs in his repertoire to her. The second of the two, the multi-layered smooth-funk groove ‘A Fan’s Mail’, manages to be unapologetically comedic at the same time as showcasing Thundercat’s expertise as a bassist. He deftly plays around with pedals throughout, to create a sound that oozes suave jazz, whilst tunefully meowing and making clever intertextual references.
Oh Sheit it’s X
The only fair way to describe this track is insatiably funky. The cutting synth, disco drumline and the enigmatic bass riffs, saturated with that unmistakable ‘wah’ sound, make for a fast-paced song that is impossible not to dance along to. Even the exultant lyrics, ‘I just wanna party, you should be here with me’, call out for the listener to indulge in the groove. For anyone with a penchant for experimentalist hip-hop this one is a must hear, and I challenge you to try and resist the boogie.
Walk on By
One of the more laid-back songs on the 2017 release, Drunk, Thundercat reunites with his old friend Kendrick Lamar in this down tempo, stirring ballad. Both artists evidently reign in their typically extroverted musical style to master a tune reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s soulful melodies. The drum machine beat is sharp, the vocals melancholic and Lamar’s rapping is intricate and perfectly timed. ‘Walk on By’ is just another example of the way the LA jazz scene, and the genre itself, are undergoing an exciting reimagining, pioneered by artists like Thundercat. The result is, quite frankly, mesmerising.
Released on both The Beyond/Where The Giants Roam in 2015 and Drunk (2017), ‘Them Changes’ is undoubtedly one of Thundercat’s most iconic hits. A pinch of The Isley Brothers, a teaspoon of killer groove and a big dollop of bone wobbling bass make the recipe for this four-on-the-floor funk stomper. There is no shortage of intricate bass fills or Bruner’s classic ethereal vocals either. In fact, just under halfway through, the melody takes a brief u-turn into the realm of gentle keyboard and vocals, before excitedly building back up to the familiar heavy beat. Overall, ‘Them Changes’ is probably Thundercat’s most accessible song. He forgoes the usual freaky, technical showmanship in favour of something that appeals to both music aficionados and novices alike.
Thundercat will be showing off his astounding talents at The Albert Hall in Manchester on Wednesday 15th November, and a few tickets are still available.
Photo courtesy of Brainfeeder