With subtle brilliance, producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Kennedy builds upon a near two-decade career with HA!, setting the standard again for balanced, break-based downtempo hip-hop music. This robust 15-track album, released September 22nd, exhibits a strain of musical expressionism which can only be described as rare, painting a soundscape full of life and variable emotion without a hint of din or dissonance, without a trace of zealous exhibitionism.
Grasping the extent of Kennedy’s musicianship and the breadth of composition within HA! requires some context. Kennedy cites Peter Frampton, Electric Light Orchestra, David Essex, and Geoff Wayne’s “War of the Worlds” as some of his earliest influences. His brother’s affinity for classic rock oriented Kennedy towards guitar-driven musical concepts. He was quickly signed onto the independent British label Tru Thoughts after one of his demo CDs was played on the UK-based radio show, Brighton’s Juice in 2000. After releasing three more LPs, including two on the legendary UK label Grand Central, Kennedy founded his own label in 2009, signing a half a dozen artists onto Jon Kennedy Federation and self-releasing his fifth LP, Corporeal. During these formative years, he also created under the aliases 777, KRS Jon, and with the group Snare Force One.
As a label owner, Kennedy encourages artists to send tunes directly to him, or offer him a physical copy of their work at his shows. Kennedy himself was first “discovered” after handing a tape to legendary UK DJ Mr. Scruff at a gig. Today he keeps a vinyl collection of over 6,000 plates. When he’s not spinning DJ sets from Romania to Ukraine, and from England to Vietnam, he performs with an ambitious live outfit, conducting guitar, bass, keyboard, flute, and alto sax from his command center and musical home behind the drum kit.
Throughout his career, the musicality and tonal direction of Kennedy’s work has evolved from slice-and-loop trip-hop beats into multi-instrumental organic composition marked by acoustic fidelity, musical dialogue, and balanced arrangements.
A drummer before all else, he grounds every note and noise on Ha! in a garden of perfect, pocket percussion. The shine of ride cymbals, the pitter-patter of raspy snares, the shake of the tambourine, and the steadfast kick offer a backdrop upon which familiar melodies and delicate tonal sprinkles shine in beautiful relief. Ha! Can easily slide into the listening rotation of any discerning audiophile.
The album opens with the title track, a soulful head-nodder which Kennedy also reprises to close the album, this time weaving in colorful vocals from Adjua. Kennedy maintains a smooth blend and stable balance of sonic elements throughout the album. His mixing and mastering is seamless. No single lead or instrument stand too far apart from another, yet nothing is lost or buried.
“I could see the clouds boiling, starlight was coming down through the eye,” says a voice to open the dazzling cut “Twilight”. “There was absolutely nothing blocking this light from the stars. And I’ve got this straight shot into the heavens, and all the stars were there and the light coming down was bright.” The bassline, of a delightful timbre and likely recorded on a stand-up bass, strikes back and forth like the arm of a clock. After counting time on the hi-hat for a few measures, a boom-bap beat steps into the mix punctuated by what sounds like one of the cleanest snare drums in recorded history. The tune meanders through space, when towards the end a winsome acoustic guitar lick, assumedly played by Kennedy himself, offers a catalyst for fresh and cosmic thoughts.
“Iron Lung” serves up the deepest bassline on the album, a stomping swaggering system sound with a flush, jet-engineered synthesizer - electronica’s counterpart to the distorted guitar - that struts overtop the quaking sub bass. Within the musical rests, a scratchy bagpipe wales out a tone adding color to the refrains.
A pure elemental groove of drum and bass swells like a wave throughout the album, and the gravitational undertones of “Jupiter Calling” form the crest of this wave. A bass synthesizer sings out a triumphant, atavistic melody, setting a foundation solid as bedrock for a dance between funked-out drums, hi-hats splashing like huge falling raindrops, and a shifty, maneuvering bassline with a groove of its own to match its percussive partner.
Kennedy also writes and performs his own vocals, producing moments of profound poetry on Ha!. “You can be a slave to the TV, or you can get up and look around,” Kennedy offers on “Slave to the TV”. “I’m inside this box of fear and laughter, like my past lives it’s you I’m after.” Drums shuffle beneath a spaced-out mode of notes in the middle of a heated dialogue, acquiescing tension, begging an unanswered question from the listener.
“The Runner” floats on for what feels like an eternity. The longest song on the album, it’s also the most serene. One could justifiably identify this as downtempo, but it forgoes the electronic associations of downtempo which are so common this side of the pond, generating its soothing vibe instead with a calm cuddle between bass, drums, soft and sustained guitar playing, and melancholic vocal samples.
“I think you genuinely have to be an exhibitionist to really be a star” says a voice at the outset of “Burn Me”. While the drums flitter swiftly, a symphonic string movement leads the listener into an unfamiliar space. An unintelligible but emotionally stirring vocal sample again brings up unanswered questions.
Jon Kennedy’s music typifies the expression that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The parts - traditional instruments, plaintive samples, vocals, bits of rock, hip-hop, jazz - are combined to create something extraordinary, something beyond. The same could be said of Kennedy’s career. LP’s, singles, sets, videos, collaborations, mixes, artists signed and influences mined through the Jon Kennedy Federation coalesce into a distinguished body of work, a resplendent whole which after spinning through HA! front to back, one can hardly help but investigate further.
Kennedy has also been gracious enough to provide the seventh installment of Rusted Rhythms. This exclusive 65-minute mix features some of our favorite cuts from “HA!”, a handful of older tracks and remixes from Kennedy, and highly exclusive remixes and unreleased tunes from legends like 6blocc and Reso. Not to mention that the mix was done in one take on control vinyl - all solid state needle on records.
Take the opportunity to enjoy highlights from an already seamless album alongside unreleased gems in this continuous mix, while catching a glimpse of Kennedy’s wider catalog. We promise there’s a handful of heavy surprises in there, too!
Pick up HA! here and make sure to check out Jon's subscription service, which includes all of his 11 previous releases and all forthcoming music as well!
- Pasquale & Mark