Ads Top

Grassroots: How Maal & Tom Richman made their organic, refreshing R&B album

Maal & Tom Richman in New York. Photo by Jelani Rice.

Picture this: It’s a gorgeous 60-something degree day in early March as winter is melting into spring. Kansas Citians are basking in the post-freeze warmth. Birds are chirping, COVID is trending downward, and I am...still on a Zoom call.

If the situation was any different, we all would have met up in person, but Tom Richman, producer and half of Maal & Tom Richman (duh), has just moved to New York -- a lifelong dream of his. Richman calls in from a temporary spot he’s staying at before he settles in Queens. Maal calls from Lawrence, where he has recently returned after several years in Los Angeles. I ask if the return home is temporary due to the pandemic and I get a quick and typically quippy reply: “Isn’t life just temporary?” he asks with a wry smile.

Ah, the sweet release of death. Sounds kind of inviting after the last year we’ve all had, right? Obviously, life-affirming moments are a little hard to come by right now, but I can assure you that Maal and Richman’s new album, Grass, holds several. 

Part of what makes Grass so rewarding is its unique mix of old and new. Pop music today -- while oftentimes still exceptional -- is rife with lyrics about depression and anxiety and the drugs taken to cope with those ailments. The songs are full of hazy synths, clattering drums, and other cold, synthetic sounds, even when the lyrics end up more upbeat. On Grass, Maal, Richman, and their team made an album just as catchy as anything on the charts, cribbed some of those songs’ themes and tropes, and reconstructed them with organic instrumentation and a free-spirited delivery.

The seeds of the album were planted while Maal and Richman were on tour performing Maal’s album with longtime friend and collaborator P. Morris, Good Morning, I Love You, back in 2016. Long used to performing in more traditional hip-hop or DJ arrangements (their old outfit, Team Bear Club, threw some legendary parties that you can study up on elsewhere), the crew was enjoying the new live band setup and wanted to use it to craft the GMILY follow-up. That Maal & Morris sequel is still in the works, but much of the lineup on that album was the same as on Grass, recorded from fall 2019 to spring 2020 in Highland Park, Los Angeles.


Maal. Photo by Jelani Rice.


Its opening track, “Radio,” begins with lap steel guitar picking courtesy of Lucas Gorham and a few fluttering notes from in-demand saxophonist Sam Gendel. Simultaneously, you can hear the pastoral sounds of Maal and Richman’s Kansas home and the palm trees and scenic hills of their adopted California.

The song makes for a pensive and heartfelt overture; Maal’s raps make note of humanity’s shared struggles before paying tribute to a couple of his escapes of choice. (“On the street they don’t care about us / Only made in America / On the news it’s hysteria / I found love in my stereo.”) The album was mostly wrapped up by the time that coronavirus lockdowns reached America, so while the societal ills being acknowledged here come from general Trump-era woes and those that long predate the administration, the lyrics feel even more emotional given how 2020 played out. Grass was ready to go by last summer, but Maal and Richman agreed that amid landmark racial justice protests, it simply wasn’t the right time to release it and opted to wait until March 2021.

Paired with the thoughtful and minimal accompaniment of Richman and the band, Maal’s voice on “Radio” and beyond is arrestingly gentle, able to inspire a hopeful calm in any listener. He claims to have “the world’s chillest voice” in a voiceover clip on his YouTube channel and I would not argue with this at all. He also has some ASMR videos, if that’s your thing.

Then there’s “Pot Smoke.” The song is an elegant, piano-led R&B track that exudes the playful hippie vibe that’s a common thread through much of the album. Lots of modern weed-centric music simply utilizes blunt smoking as another way to signal coolness to the listener, but the combination of vintage instrumentation and Maal’s post-trap delivery is distinct as they come. (It’s easy to picture this number performed at what would be an extremely fun Tiny Desk Concert.)

Richman filled me in on an important part of the creative process he shares with Maal and Morris. “I feel like as a producer, I’ve always been trying to figure out, ‘How can I do this thing in a way that no one else has ever done? How can I make drum and bass music with trap drums? How can I make a country song with drum and bass drums? How can I use these elements in a way that no one else ever used [them]?’”


Tom Richman. Photo by Jelani Rice.


It’s with this experimental outlook in mind -- almost like a random genre combo generator -- and their decade-plus of experience that Maal, Richman, and their friends are able to seamlessly assemble vintage R&B instrumentals with modern hip-hop lyrics on “Pot Smoke,” or psych pop imagery and Latin rhythm on “1969,” (free love, am I right?) and so on. Even looking back to GMILY, the song "Muddy Waters" is essentially a blues song reinterpreted through modern hip-hop production. Whatever the combination, the end product is most often a sort of suave, savvy stoner music with a life of its own -- 100% additive-free smoking tunes for the fashion magazine crowd (with a sense of humor).

The average Music Enjoyer should have no problem Getting Down to the Far Out Tunes on Grass, but something that should be addressed for the sake of the insufferable type of music nerds that often read music magazines (like myself) is Maal’s penchant for pastiche. (Jokes aside, it’s an interesting and important element of his music.) On “Radio,” there’s the line, “On the radio, DJ don’t play ‘em like they did before.” On “Pot Smoke,” “This another song for you to dance to” and a refrain of “whole club full of haters.” These aren’t direct quotes from other songs, or even interpolations -- Maal has simply mastered the strange art of writing lyrics and vocal melodies that you can swear you’ve heard before, despite that not being the case. This occurs in the production sometimes, too: “1969” sounds like it could be a Doors or Beatles b-side that you just can’t put your finger on.

Occasionally, Maal pushes things even further, making direct references to other songs. This occurs on “The Code” (“Where were you when we were getting high?”) and throughout “Valproate,” a loving tribute to Nirvana’s “Lithium.” To make better sense of this habit, you may want to backtrack and listen to “Type Beat” from Maal and Richman’s previous album, Butane. “Type Beat” is a party rap song built almost exclusively from back-to-back-to-back references to other rappers’ hit songs and production styles. Once you’ve heard this, it should be clear that Maal’s meta tendencies come from a place of appreciation and fascination with hip-hop and pop culture. Lil B, Playboi Carti, Father, Yung Jake, and other beloved artists have made use of abstracted hip-hop trends in their work, but of course, none exactly like Maal.

If any listeners are still having a tough time with the concept, Maal offers a simple comparison: “The Beatles, bro! The first three albums they put out, half of the songs were covers. So it’s like, people love the fucking covers and it’s worked since the dawn of fucking time. [“Valproate”] is basically a cover.” He continues, “And that’s what hip-hop is to me. The sample is part of hip-hop history. It connects the mind to something similar and it draws the reference -- you get the taste of an artist. I can sample some things that mean something to me and draw inspiration and nostalgia for me,” Maal says before offering a final comparison to Frank Ocean’s prominent sampling of Coldplay and MGMT tracks on Nostalgia, Ultra.

Grass comes to a close with a trio of tranquil and fulfilling tracks. There’s the mostly instrumental “Theme Of Grass” which features sounds from nature over ambient guitars and synths, “Wild Dogs,” a Richman favorite that he says reflects his friendship with Maal (a howling good time), and “Go Higher,” a song that’s genuinely inspirational while simultaneously making another clever weed reference.

And that’s it. Nine songs, here and gone in 20 minutes, ready to be replayed. Anthems for summertime car rides, reunions with dear pals, shared joints. New, old, a little of both. Loud and soft with room to breathe in-between. Clutterless. Both meta and intimately personal. If nature really is healing, Grass is the soundtrack to that.

Grass is available now on Bandcamp and all streaming platforms.


[This article first appeared in Issue 1 of Shuttlecock's free monthly print edition. Click here to read more about the issue and find your copy.]

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.