Brasstracks Get Down to Brass Tacks on Their Love of Black Music

Ivan Jackson and Conor Rayne of Brasstracks have been making sonically slick, instrumentally intricate, thoughtfully textured music since 2014. University friends energized by musical collaboration, the two earned the accolade of ‘Grammy-winning producers’ in just a matter of years. Such fast-rising appeal and growing esteem within the communities of R&B, hip-hop, and more, so early into Brasstracks’ career could create the impression that Jackson (trumpet, guitar, bass, keys) and Rayne (drums, percussion) do not, or, at the very least, need not, concern themselves with much beyond writing, producing, and performing music that reflects the those styles which they appreciate most.

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Brasstracks’ beat-bold, swagger-soaked new single “Hold Ya,” featuring sibling-founded, soul pop band Lawrence, doesn’t exactly tackle controversial socio-political subject matter. Lyrics muse the potential loss of one’s significant other (I’m so tired from tryin’ not to lose ya / It’s a full time job to be on your mind / Why the hell did I have to choose ya? / Didn’t read the finer print when I signed) and the song even sneaks in a tongue-in-cheek spoken outtro at the end. Still, even just in talking about the chemistry Brasstracks shared with Lawrence when putting together the song, the positive interaction is just scratching the surface with regard to how Brasstracks ends up connecting and working with the people that they do.

“’Hold Ya’ came out of one of the first album sessions that we had. I think it was like May of 2019,. And we made like 20 ideas that day. “Hold Ya” was one of those,” says Jackson. “We had a bunch of other ideas for Lawrence but when we played that one for Clyde and Gracie [Lawrence] [and] they both said, ‘Yeah, that’s the one.’ So we wrote the song [all together] right there that day. We were hoping that [something good would come out of that session] and we got lucky I guess!,” he says.

Brasstracks may have had some new songs, like “Hold Ya,” zipped up in the studio well before the current surge in calls for racial equality, social justice, and law enforcement accountability. However, as Jackson and Conor have come to show through grassroots action in support of these worldwide goals, reflecting on what kind of music a musician makes, why they make it, who they make it with, and what they want to say with it, is something artists can start doing anytime in the creative process.

“There’s never really been a period in our lives when [Conor and I] didn’t know exactly what we were pulling from [when writing music together.]. Like I’m not pulling from any white American artists. I’m just not. [T]hey’re standing on the shoulders of Black American giants and Black giants in general. [To clarify,] we make Black American music,” Jackson says.

Whether a listener is a fan since day one or just diving into Brasstracks now through “Hold Ya,” it doesn’t take long to hear and feel the musical qualities of R&B and soul – genres profoundly intertwined with Black musicians and Black history – fused into Jackson and Conor’s stylistic creativity. One half of Jackson’s trumpeting is given a crystalline polish and a tonal narrowing so refined that the upper register notes in the song’s main hook seem like they could pierce through a wall if played loud and long enough.

In contrast, other layers of horns play long, legato, almost woozy chromatic notes that off-set the primary tonal punch. The former projects the kind of extreme degree of definition that feels reminiscent of dynamically intense jazz improvisations from the likes of Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis. Similarly, Rayne’s drum beats have been crafted to exude such a bold but clean cutting snap that it’s nearly impossible not to find oneself physically getting caught up in the rhythm as the song unfurls.

Such indirect indications of jazz influence aren’s entirely surprising given Brasstracks’ collegiate background but much like their awareness of what they’re doing in the present, both gentlemen lived through those earlier years with a definite sense of historical context for the music by which they were surrounded. 

“[Conor and I] are lucky because we took jazz courses and took lessons from jazz greats and studied with jazz musicians. I would say it gave us some perspective on whose shoulders we’re standing on and what we’re doing,” Jackson says.

“America is a complex society so, it’s really hard to connect with a lineage,” says Rayne.

“One thing I respect a lot about jazz music is about carrying on a tradition and respecting the people that came before because, not to get meta or heavy or anything but, I believe that the world of ancestors, [I believe] their energy sticks around. It may not be in this realm. But it’s in a different realm and it gets carried on through the generations,” Rayne says, before proceeding to connect things to his specific experience as a musician.

“I mean like, me holding a drum stick in my hand, or two drum sticks in my hand, everything I’ve listened to over the last 27 years is in my DNA. So I don’t know, I have to be as humble as I can everyday and realize that art isn’t made in a vacuum. It’s made in justice. That’s how it lives on. So yeah, just waking up to being humble and just respecting the past and having respect in general.”

All the same, be it Brasstracks’ passion for R&B and soul or their sincere acknowledgement of jazz’s significance in the converging canons of music history and Black history, well before Black Lives Matter took on its newest level of social empowerment, Jackson and Rayne were aware of but never accepted, the quiet yet definitive discomfort others may have projected when the subject of what kind of music the duo pursues came up.

“It’s kind of a shame that people have a problem,” Jackson says.

“I think the biggest thing is to start saying the words,” he continues. “Say it out loud. You know, ‘This is Black music.’ People have a problem with that sh-t. White people specifically have a problem with that sh-t [and] I’ve never taken any offense to that. It’s crazy to think that someone could take offense to that when you look at what we’re really doing here [with our music.]”

While these kinds of unabashed, very self-assured statements from Jackson allude to Brasstracks long being a voice of contextualization for the music they love, the band has actually taken even more direct and public facing stances via social media, in supporting Black art and folks. In the midst of doing so, each has realized even more about their own feelings regarding the style of Brasstracks’ art, as well as an evolving appreciation for cause behind music that wasn’t as central a priority before. The rise of Black Lives Matter, the unification of the world behind equality and understanding across race, brought the approach of purpose-driven art to the forefront and on both wide reaching and individual levels, this change in thinking is only inspiring Brasstracks’ further.

“I’ve been really ambivalent about my social media use and also pretty ambivalent about speaking up during Black Lives Matter movements in the past and this is the first time I’ve decided to really use my voice and speak out as an individual, against injustice,” says Rayne.

“It’s interesting how activism and how being active for a bigger cause than yourself has made me [aware] of the capitalist methods you [get exposed to] since you’re a kid: ‘You’re only worth what you produce; you’re only worth your work. You’re basically only worth the time you put into your work’,” he explains. “It’s only been a couple weeks but like, speaking up and being active has made me start to feel better and realize that the work you’re doing isn’t for yourself. And that extends to music too. If you’re making music, you’re making it for the world to hear. And music has a healing power,” Rayne says.

Amid meaningful self-reflection, Brasstracks hasn’t lost sight of the power their widespread musical platform holds and gives to them as individuals with opinions and feelings and independent voices. During the height of the multi-city protests in the U.S., Jackson went out on a limb with a challenge of sorts via the band’s official Twitter, that, to put it lightly, didn’t resonate positively with a good many people, despite its fundamentally well-intentioned point.

“If you’re a white artist who’s recorded with me in the past and you haven’t spoken up on what’s going on right now, I’m leaking your untuned dry vocal stems by the end of the weekend, good luck,” is what Jackson posted to Brasstracks’ official account on May 29, 2020. But just as he didn’t waver in issuing that demand for public solidarity, Jackson was just as clear and steadfast in his explanation of why he, Rayne, and the rest of Brasstracks’ team felt that was the best approach for the duo to make their point.

“Well let’s just start with this: That was a tweet,” Jackson reaffirms.

“Besides that [statement], [Brasstracks] has been raising money all over the place as much as we possibly can, going to protests, educating ourselves on our own white privilege and inherent white privilege that we all hold, and trying to unlearn things that society has imparted on us without us even knowing. So we’ve been focusing our time on that,” he says.

“I have not,” he pivots, “been focusing my time on getting together a folder of stems to leak. And for the people that were focused on that, that was the whole point. That was a tweet. That was one tweet. But it got like damn near half a million likes and like 50,000 retweets or something like that – I don’t know. I stopped even looking at it after I started getting death threats and people started calling me a fascist. You know, screw it though. I don’t f-cking care. To be silent, silence speaks volumes now for white artists.”

While the internet may love to relish in a juicy scandal, mystery, or dirty looking gossip – all airs of which this tweet seemed according to many to give off –  Jackson goes on to neatly outline why neither he nor Rayne ever had any cause for concern but why they still felt the motion was valuable in the eyes of public discussion.

“If [Brassstracks’] is talking about white artists, we’re talking about white singers. And white singers, for us, are all singing R&B for the most part. So, white R&B singers all have an obligation, as people who borrow from Black culture, you’re not allowed to live in this world and take from this music and take the good parts and then take off the suit when you’re done wearing it and say ‘No!’ because Black people don’t get to do that. Black people don’t get to take off their skin. So that’s not acceptable [to us.],” he says.

“We had a lot of conversations amongst out team about like, ‘When’s the time to be polite?’,” Jackson continues. “It’s no longer the time to be polite. I don’t give a f-ck who I pissed off. Anybody who I upset, I don’t want to associate with them, you know? I don’t want my well to be filled up with those people. But I will say this: [Ultimately,] I didn’t have anything to leak because every single white artist that we associate ourselves with knows. They know better. They all have to say something and they all did. And for [others] thinking I was planning a blackmail attack, [they] missed the whole f-cking point. people are like, ‘You can’t scare somebody into saying something, or else they’re not really gonna feel that.’ Again, not really the point. The point is to amplify the message and hopefully influence at least one person.” says Jackson.

All this verbal intensity aside, just because Jackson feels it necessary in this moment to speak so emphatically about his beliefs doesn’t mean he isn’t aware of his own personality type – especially when situated next to Rayne’s contrasting modes of expression and coping.

“[T]he dynamic between me and Conor [helps with sharing our messages,] by the way; I want to say that,” Jackson says. “Like, Conor finds a way to fine tune my boldness I would say, which is very helpful. I can often get brash but I’m passionate about what I believe in. Conor is also equally passionate about this but in a different way of application and, together we can be very thoughtful,” he says.

Beyond the duo of Brasstracks having each other’s backs in the social media sphere, through all of this social upheaval, personal revelations, reaffirmation of values, and realized action, Rayne and Jackson are definitely primed with an abundance of thoughts, feelings, and newly stoked motivations that they see playing a much bigger role in the direct substance and-or emotional impact of future music. Much like the changes the band are hoping for and working toward with the rest of the world, any shifts in Brasstracks’ narrative vantage point won’t descend overnight. Nevertheless, with the duo standing on a myriad of new storytelling opportunities, whatever ends up blending with this pair’s sharp ears and production skills can only lead to explosively good results that connect the best of substance with suave dance.

“I want to work actively on getting better myself as a songwriter. I’d like to work better on actively putting the things that are around me, into the things that we are writing. I’ve never actually approached it too much,” says Jackson.

“I haven’t actively pursued [writing in that way,],” he continues. “I’m not writing music about the injustice going on around me. We’ve collaborated with a lot of different people. We could have had the opportunity to do this at some point. I’m not saying I dislike what we were writing before but, I’m just saying that I’d like to incorporate a lot a bit of that going forward. I don’t know exactly how it would look because we haven’t done it so much but I’m at the point where I feel more comfortable even just saying that – saying that I want to do that.”

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