At Hip Hop Karaoke in Vancouver’s Chinatown, the room outside Fortune Sound Club is packed and the line outside is growing as Panther and the Supafly take the stage to play live instrumentals for 15 aspiring wanna-be rappers. Having reworked the beats in a number of practices, they flawlessly flow though nearly two decades of rap, ranging from mainstream top-40 to golden era classics. Despite being a hip hop night, the dominant view from hip hop heads is that the event lacks legitimacy in the rap scene. Really though this is nothing new, as being defined and designated in an unintended way by your peers and fans is a reality in any music scene. Thus, it really wasn’t really surprising to learn that the current chapter in the story of Panther and the Supafly has also found the young band in somewhat of a parallel situation in terms of their original music.
Panther and the Supafly is a five-person outfit from Vancouver, comprised of Josh ‘Panther’ Matumona (Vocals), Leon Feldman (Guitar), Duncan Truter (Drums), Nate Drobner (Bass/Keyboards) and Dave Pimental (Keyboards/Synths). All in their early twenties, they are classically trained, have played with one another in various iterations for nearly a decade and show immense depth in their influences and musicality. This depth is arguably their greatest strength and was strongly reflected in their first release together, NKAZI (Dec. 2011).
While the album was well received by fans and critics, attempts to define their sound instilled some frustration for Panther, as his emceeing efforts fell short of hammering the hip hop nail on the head. Listening to NKAZI is like genre roulette, jumping back and forth track to track without much direction or cohesion. Reviews of the album thus unsurprisingly equated the group’s sound all across the musical spectrum, ranging from punk and ska to funk and jazz, with the many shades of hip-hop and rap being drastically understated.
During a recording session at Vancouver’s infamous Mushroom Studios, Panther begrudgingly muses on the vast reactions to the initial release.
“People don’t take a lot of time to really think about what something sounds like, its what comes immediately,” he says. “They’ll hear a snippet of a song and say ‘that part kinda sounds like this, and therefore the song sounds like that’ and therefore that is one of our influences, which is not particularly true.”
“I like hip hop, I want to make hip hop, I want to play hip hop with a live band.” – Josh ‘Panther’ Matumona
However, with the varied interpretations being so widely echoed, there is definitely truth rooted in this mixed public sentiment.
The album was basically an amalgam of the respective band member’s past influences, patched together due to pressure to release a recording. The songs for NKAZI were recorded in four different studios with four different producers and were written largely during the early stages of the band’s nascence. Coupled with the band member’s drastically different musical backgrounds, the direction of the album was non-existent for the most part.
Prior to officially joining with the Supafly, Panther himself was playing guitar in an emotive hardcore band and admits, “The music I was making before this hip-hop was different,” describing his initial tracks as primitive, “bass, drums, guitar kind of music.” At the time, Panther wasn’t writing with a band in mind and was relatively confined to the language of the hardcore and rock music he knew when they started playing his songs. The transition to writing for the band was experimental at that point.
“I had an idea of what I wanted to sound like and the kind of music I wanted to make, I just wasn’t sure what that was really. I was just making sounds that I liked to hear, it wasn’t fleshed out at all.”
The fleshing out he needed came from his bandmates who were all sharing their respective skills and influences while practicing and recording these early tracks. The biggest evolution Panther cites was learning to produce beats, as he was dissatisfied with the archetypal hip hop format of verse / chorus / verse / chorus with prepackaged beats sold to the highest bidder. Learning production techniques predominantly from bandmates Drobner and Pimental opened the door for his writing and gave him a stronger outlet to convey his message.
“When you make beats and you’re an emcee and a singer, it’s a lot easier to flow on your own rhythms that you made and on the instruments that you chose, as opposed to someone who made the beat for you so you have to try and figure out the flow of it or what kind of personality it has,” he says.
After growing into his role as frontman for the band, Panther is much more confident in the direction he wants to take, which largely stems from the widely inconsistent interpretations of their first album. “I like hip hop, I want to make hip hop, I want to play hip hop with a live band,” Panther explains. “I want to make hip hop music with bridges.” But that may be a difficult epithet for him to attain as he believes “you can’t play hip hop anywhere with a live band without being labeled. People see us as more of an indie band because of our instruments.”
While not indignant about this perceived mislabeling, the sentiment is clearly weighing heavily on the group’s new direction.
“People can’t latch onto a cloud, you’ve gotta give them a metal bar to latch onto. And I find the level of focus you have in your music sets the bar for what you’re doing.”
Focus is definitely the dominant theme these days for the August 3rd release of Blood and Joy, as well as the band’s forthcoming 2013 EP.
At the group’s jam sessions and in the studio the focal point is finding a dialogue between the respective idioms of rock n roll versus the idioms of hip-hop. They are seeking to effectively modernize hip-hop by giving Panther’s raps a heavy synth-bath to create meaningful soundscapes beyond just beats and rhymes. Highlighting the new direction, he explains that “painting a landscape is the way we’re trying to work right now, as opposed to just building a song.”
Rapping over simple but effective chord progressions is Panther’s attempt to clear up all the categorical misnomers his music suffered in the Supafly’s early days. With acoustic motifs running throughout their new work and hard-hitting flows specifically curtailed to each song’s respective sound and message, they are hoping to bend and blend genres rather than flip back and forth between them. Whether this is effective at controlling how they are defined is yet to be seen, but the overarching point they are taking away is truly universal.
“No matter who you are, you’re always going to be compared to somebody else,” Panther says. “And you may not like that music, you may not respect it and you might not sound like it at all, but someone thinks you do, and that’s not up to you.”
Catch Panther and the Supafly at Venue Nightclub on July 12 and at Shambhala Music Festival (Salmo, BC) August 8-13.
By Paul GT
Cover illustration: Joshua Grafstein