Masego's Cooking in the Jazz Bando: Get Familiar with Trap House Jazz
"They were just like play some John Coltrane and get in the corner. But that’s just not how I work."
Masego / Photo by Second Letter, courtesy of Masego
“She's an iPhone woman and he's an Android man / So switch up your plan,” Masego sings, saxophone in hand, his sampler, computer, and mic in front of him. He’s singing the opening lyrics from “Sego Hotline,” a track from his latest project Pink Polo EP, which, among other things, revolves around the idea of ditching technology for human contact.
It’s mid-August and he’s playing—a setup in which, as he puts it, he “half sings, half performs, half plays stuff on my computer”—to 50 or so enthusiastic attendees at Brooklyn’s Black Bear Bar, a tiny show on the heels of his New York live debut at SOB’s the month prior. The members of the audience immediately pull out their phones once he straps on his sax. “Hidy, hidy, hidy, ho!” He sings, urging them to join in a call-and-response. “Hidy, hidy, hidy, ho!” The crowd returns, loudly. With no DJ backing him, a look of amusement and amazement spreads across his face. “I can do whatever I want,” he laughs. “It’s crazy. I have too much control!”
At 6'5", Masego is lanky, outfitted in ripped jean shorts, burgundy Nike Roshe running shoes, and a black and green tropical shirt. He has a gold hoop in his ear, and his hair, styled in twists, falls in his face. His movements are expansive and exaggerated: While he sets up for his performance, he maneuvers around the stage, spinning and dancing. His one man show is a combination of comedy and soul: When it’s his turn to play, he jokes with the audience and improvises parts of his set, playing his sampler over a snippet of him beatboxing. Beatboxing is just one of the many skills in his wheelhouse: He shifts between scatting, singing, rapping, and beatboxing with ease; and in addition to the sax, he can play the drums, keys, vibraphone, and harmonica, and a little guitar, bass, trumpet, and trombone.
Though Masego’s vocal ability is strong, he hid behind his instruments for most of his life. He only began singing and producing mixtapes over the last few years. After experimenting with a couple projects—Sides of Masego and Better With Headphones—he finally came into his own with Masego Music, which he released in 2013. The next year he put out Traphouse Jazz, a beat tape that he produced entirely by himself, and solidified his "trap house jazz" style. Earlier this summer, he dropped Pink Polo, which is a collaboration with Medasin, a producer in the Toronto and Kingston, Jamaica-based music collective Film Noir.
Masego—née Micah Davis—was born in Jamaica to an American mother and Jamaican father. His father is a pastor in the military, so they moved around a lot when Masego was little, finally settling in Newport News, Virginia. His mother is also a pastor—specifically the Minister of Music at their church. Church was a strong presence in Masego’s life, as was playing in the church band; music came naturally to him.
“I learned the drums [early]. I said, ‘Hey, just pray over me.’ They prayed over me. Boom. Know the drums,” Masego recalls. “I mean that’s just how I know my personal religion is what it is, because it’s like I didn’t have any lessons… learned drums, learned keys, learned sax like that. And then everyone in my life is like, ‘Oh, this dude right here is blessed.’ They just start calling me Blessing.” Masego picked up his second nickname from an African name book—in the Bantu language Tswana, Masego means blessings.
The aesthetic he’s cooked up over the years is inclusive of what he calls “a big stew” of elements and sounds, pulling together the playful qualities of contemporary alternative hip-hop’s eclectic future bounce style, the grimy snares and bass of trap, the trance-like synths of house, and the melodic sax found in jazz. There’s also an element of what he calls trap scatting. Alongside the standout tracks “Girls That Dance” and “Shut Up & Groove,” Pink Polo’s most distinctive songs, the ones that best capture the trap-jazz-bounce-house blend, are “TrapScat (Get Loose),” “Bounce,” and “Sunday Vibes.”
“We really know trap music well around [Newport News]. There are so many different variations of it... I don’t want to say [trap is] hood energy, but it’s just like that grungy energy, and scatting is such a like lighthearted, jazzy element,” Masego explains. “So I thought trap scatting was the best way to give it a new term. Everything that I’m doing, it’s like a future jazz, future trap house movement. It’s just like doing things that were frowned upon. I was joked by a lot of older musicians because I was playing saxophone over trap beats or future bounce beats, and it just wasn’t what you do. They were just like play some John Coltrane and get in the corner. But that’s just not how I work.”
Since Pink Polo was released in June, Masego wanted the title to be evocative of summer, but above all it’s about not fitting in. The project title is a direct reference to Kanye West’s song “Touch the Sky”: “Back when they thought pink polos would hurt the Roc / Before Cam got the shit to pop.”
Photo by Anthony Alston, courtesy of Masego
“Kanye used a pink polo as a metaphor for what was holding him back and what was pushing him into the industry,” Masego explains. “[The] pink polo was frowned upon just because it was almost like weak and it just didn’t fit in with that whole hip-hop thing. I felt the same way with playing saxophone over these like future bounce beats. So I was like yeah, the pink polo is a metaphor towards that innovation, that breaking into the industry that doesn’t accept you yet.”
In Masego’s eyes, his marriage with the Film Noir collective has pushed his sound even more, toward a place he might never have reached before. Collaboration has become a cornerstone of his creative approach. Taking those ideas one step further, his latest endeavor, the TrapHouseJazz Band is a group “about 100 musicians deep,” as they note on Soundcloud, and essentially crowdsourced by Masego’s new app, Network by Masego. The app, which goes public January 1, is designed to help artists connect with each other more easily.
“[Network] is my phone book of dope people that I assemble to create amazing gumbo music—jazz musicians that have the mentality to innovate with their musicianship,” Masego says. “Anyone I have musical chemistry with, I recruit, and we do shows and create drum kits together and make tunes for the SoundCloud.” The TrapHouseJazz Band’s latest track “Brighter Day,” a jazz-funk-future remix of the gospel song with the same name, was released in September and is a collaboration among 16 musicians.
The song is well within the spirit of what Masego is all about. For whatever else it may represent, Pink Polo is also a reminder to have fun—to get up and dance at parties, and to put your cell phone down and interact with people face-to-face. “I feel like we kind of forgot how to socialize, we forgot how to enjoy ourselves,” he says. “[Pink Polo] is me just joking and doing some satire. We talk too much—we’re always politicking. I hate politicking. I’m not the type of dude to like get around 13 guys and talk about who’s next. I can’t stand that. I like to take action.” With his surefire blend of humor and musical dexterity, Masego is doing exactly that, pulling from everywhere to make collaborative music that involves as many people and sounds as humanly possible.
Tara Mahadevan is a writer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter.