On the sixth floor of The New School’s Jazz and Contemporary Music building, QNA come together to experiment. Comprised of members from the outer boroughs and two MCs from Minnesota, the band is only months old. QNA, for all intents and purposes, are students grooming themselves into professional musicians. Sitting in on a rehearsal, however, an audience would not think this group of young people has much left to learn. In a short span of time, QNA is already showing confidence in the direction they want to go. Their connection as a group feels cosmic. They marry jazz and hip-hop in dazzling harmony. They understand what it means to represent both genres. QNA already sound like pros.
‘As a band, we kind of see ourselves as in between jazz and hip-hop,’ says MC and saxophone master Benjamin Chin, ‘There are people in jazz who only listen to jazz. There are people in hip-hop who only listen to hip-hop. We don’t really ascribe to that.’
‘The direction that jazz is going nowadays is very modern, and I feel like that’s an acquired taste for a very exclusive palette,’ says Marina Espinet, the band’s female vocalist with an exquisite set of pipes. ‘I think combining it with hip-hop makes it more accessible.’
Overcoming the exclusivity of the two genres is a major theme for QNA. On the track ‘Good Ass Intro’ (which samples the eponymous Chance the Rapper song), the band’s other MC and songwriter Carlos Kelley even shouts, ‘If you say, “fuck hip-hop” man I agree.’
‘Carlos is a rapper, so he’s hip-hop, but he’s kind of just throwing that out the window,’ Chin explains. ‘He’s trying to put himself more into the jazz world.’
‘You don’t really see too many kids going to a jazz show,’ the band’s versatile drummer Marco Gill points out. ‘So we like to do jazz and hip-hop, but where it’s not boring for anyone.’
The jazz and hip-hop crossover is nothing new in New York, but the community continues to branch out and innovate. QNA aspire to build their own unique spot in the community, and it’s clear they’re having a great time as they do it.
‘New York has such thriving hip-hop now,’ says TJ Adorno, the band’s dynamic guitarist and composer. ‘There’s a bit of a jazz community, but a lot of it is not very mainstream, so we’re trying to bridge the two.’
‘Basically, we’re trying to get hip-hop heads to listen to jazz, and getting jazz heads to listen to hip-hop,’ says Chin.
One of the most striking ways QNA manages to stand out is through their lyrics. Their sweeping voice is intimidatingly well-read. Kelley deems himself a ‘walking libra vox,’ referencing everything from Hellraiser to Pokémon to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. QNA knows exactly what they want to talk about, and their bold dialogue engages a multiplicity of audiences.
‘I feel like we’re taking the music we like… and almost asking questions. And then playing it and seeing what the answer is with our music,’ Chin explains.
In essence, this is how QNA have defined themselves and their name.
QNA also boast a refreshing camaraderie. Unlike many young artists looking to take command in New York, QNA’s promotional photos show the band candidly laughing. This light-hearted demeanor demonstrates more than just affection among friends playing music. It embodies the trust unique to a group of musicians.
‘It’s a different kind of relationship,’ Marco says. ‘You have a friend relationship, a love relationship, and the band relationship is totally different. It’s intertwined in this weird kind of music way.’
Performing live together has only strengthened this bond and facilitated generosity between bandmates.
‘We’ve learned a lot about stage presence and how to best represent our sound on stage,’ said Adorno. ‘I remember our first set was a lot of us bumping into each other. We realized when you’re seeing us live you gotta split your attention to different people at different times versus a whole thing.’
In addition to Chance the Rapper’s Social Experiment, the band cites Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly as a supreme example of how influential the jazz/hip-hop crossover has become. Artists from the Brainfeeder label, like Flying Lotus and Thundercat, are also cited as major tastemakers for the band.
QNA say their forthcoming EP, expected to drop in October, will sound like more of a jazz record than previously released tracks.
QNA acknowledge that the genre will only continue to grow and transform, and Gill emphasizes the band’s desire to expand their influence along with it. They agree they want QNA to serve as an inclusive platform open for collaboration.
In their rehearsal space on the sixth floor, a sour note never fills the air. Despite the many questions encapsulated in their music, it feels fully realized, and smooth doesn’t even begin to describe it.
By Will Speros
A recent graduate of Fordham University, Will Speros is an aspiring journalist proudly living in Harlem. In addition to living and breathing music and film, Will maintains an active interest in politics and social justice. He hopes to eventually pursue a career as a writer of cultural critique.