Artist SpotlightButcher Brown

Sun Nov 08 2020

Meet Butcher Brown: five groove merchants delivering a heady home-brew of jams and jazz, rhymes and beats—a funky, musical mix that makes one question why great music needs to be labeled as this category or that. The hybrid moniker “jazz/hip-hop” only begins to cover it. Their balance of raw energy and smooth sophistication, edgy improvisation with a generous dose of Southern roots (South coast hip-hop to Southern rock) reveals how equal opportunity they are in employing a wide range of musical styles, and how authentically they’ve absorbed it all. Collectively, one could say they are a jazz ensemble—in the instruments they play, and the way they feel the music as one, building a performance together, with grace and grit. Individually, they are: producer / keyboardist DJ Harrison; drummer Corey Fonville; bassist Andrew Randazzo; trumpeter / saxophonist / MC Marcus “Tennishu” Tenney; and guitarist Morgan Burrs. The story of Butcher Brown is rooted in Richmond, Virginia—a.k.a. RVA—was one of the first to be established in colonial America, and is today home to a thriving musical scene, a blend of jazz and blues, funk and hip-hop, homegrown traditions and outside influences. Neo-soul pioneer D’Angelo famously hails from RVA, and the members of Butcher Brown take pride in their common musical birthright. “I would say that Prince’s legacy in Minneapolis is similar to D’Angelo’s legacy here,” says producer/engineer/keyboardist DJ Harrison, a founding member of Butcher Brown. “The difference is that Richmond is smaller and has a lot more black history and culture that influenced D’Angelo’s music. There’s a vibrant music scene here. It’s a small city that people often pass through while they’re going somewhere else on Interstate 95.” Harrison’s father was a local radio deejay and like most of the group’s members, he attended the jazz program at Virginia Commonwealth University. Drummer Corey Fonville grew up two hours away in Virginia Beach, often visited Richmond after high school, discovering “all this creative music—jazz and brass bands—being played in venues where people were standing up like it was a hip-hop or rock show, and with killing sound! It wasn’t a sit-down, quiet vibe at all, it was kind of a party and so that drew me in.” Fonville eventually crossed paths with Harrison, who by the mid-‘00s, was an experienced deejay and beatmaker, with skills on drums, bass and piano. Not long after, Randazzo arrived from Washington DC to attend VCU’s jazz program, but was immediately drawn into the same orbit. “I was a bass player coming from a more traditional jazz situation where it was like, don’t think of getting on the bandstand if you don’t know the B-section to ‘Inner Urge’,” Randazzo laughs. “But I got here in 2008 just as another bassist had left so right away there was this hole to fill. I started meeting everyone—DJ and Corey recommended me for gigs right away, and playing in bands with Marcus. But the thread that first started tying it together was DJ’s beats. He would share them with Corey and me. They were so strong. I found it seeping into my playing while I was in my freshman dorm shedding away. For me, that was the beginning of Butcher Brown.” Butcher Brown marks a 2009 date at a local venue called Bogart’s as the group’s birth-cry. At first, the group was a gathering of friends with a rotating membership exploring music they loved, while keeping the party going. A mutual love of jazz of the ‘70s and ‘80s was one element that held the band together; another was a passion for older instrumentation. Fonville: “I met Andy and he was playing a Fender Precision Bass and DJ has a Rhodes [electric piano], and none of my other peers were into that quality of sound. I was like, Yo! These are my people.” Harrison, Fonville, and Randazzo became the steady rhythm section and the band began to develop a sound and a following. Often they jammed and rehearsed in Harrison’s living room, which doubled as a recording space. Soon the DIY spirit took over: Harrison established Jellowstone Studio, recording a number of local ensembles—from singers and hip-hop crews, to jazz and gospel groups—as well as his own projects, including Butcher Brown. “This was the time when so many bands were happening in Richmond—Devil’s Workshop, No BS Brass Band, Fight The Big Bull, Ombac, and Butcher Brown,” says Tenney, who attended VCU as a trumpet major while also playing saxophone and emceeing. “I was with No BS Brass for a while, we toured in Europe and helped put Richmond on the map. Then I started working in Butcher Brown even while I kept working on other projects, my own stuff and other bands.” Starting in 2013, Butcher Brown began to release a series of recordings on their own imprint, and other independent labels as well, helping to spread the word of the group’s groove-driven consistency. One can chart the group’s development—from looser, more extended jams at the start, becoming increasingly tighter and tune-oriented—starting with the EP Backtracks and the album A Sides B Sides (both 2013), followed by All Purpose Music (2014), Grown Folk (2015—technically a beat tape), Virginia Noir (2016) and Live at the Vagabond (for the Gearbox label) and The Healer (both 2017.) By 2014, Tenney had settled into the band’s lineup, and in 2017, the group recruited guitarist Morgan Burrs, another VCU alumnus, into the mix. “I’m the newbie and I was a fan first,” Burrs admits. “I got to know them watching their shows. What captivated me when I was in jazz school was hearing them play jazz but getting crowds with different types of people—some dancing, some taking videos, and some were saying, Oh, y’all are doing the jam band thing. But I would say, Nah, it’s a bigger musical melting pot than that! You could hear it was much more than one style. I think that’s why it grabs people.” Butcher Brown’s next two recordings included critically hailed Camden Session (2018), recorded at producer Mark Ronson’s Zelig Sound studio in London for Gearbox, and Afrokuti (2019), an EP tribute to Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. Starting in 2017, the group embarked on a number of tours that garnered them further acclaim, opening for such jam and jazz favorites as Galactic, Turkuaz, and Lettuce. In 2019, star saxophonist Kamasi Washington tapped them to be his opening act, and it became clear that the group was ripe for their own chance to headline and record for a major label. Their eighth album—#KingButch—was recorded in late 2019 in Jellowstone Studios for Concord Records, and is the culmination of twelve years of dedicated focus, and commitment. It stands out as a bold step forward for the group in establishing their own sound, a choate, confident production that features the best that each member has to offer—including rhymes for the first time, showcasing Tenney’s skills as a lyricist and MC. The album also benefits from the group’s ability to create different music in a number of ways, all equally well. “There’s beats, there’s jazz tunes with solos and there’s tunes with rock vibes,” says Harrison. “Also, there’s road-tested material that we got together while touring, and studio-written material. It’s a big mixing pot of all the stuff we’ve done up to this point, which is cool because it shows who we are right now.” The cover art was created by famed designer Lou Beach, famed for his iconic cover of Weather Report’s 1977 classic, Heavy Weather. Butcher Brown’s career has been guided for the past four years by veteran artist manager David Passick (Herbie Hancock, Don Was, Maxwell), whose management firm represents a number of pioneering musicians in the jazz/hip-hop overlap; #KingButch is dedicated to Passick’s long-time partner, Jack Leitenberg, who passed away last year. “King Butch comin’ like a freight train/In the left lane/150 miles an hour—kind of insane,” raps Tenney on the album’s title track. Not only does #KingButch show where Butcher Brown is now—creating some of the most exciting, original and authentic grooves of today—but their music points to where they are heading, and where many are sure to follow.