Prior to the release of their acclaimed debut EP, Studies in Grey, Super Duty Tough Work was a group that needed to be seen live to be believed. Relying on the potency of silky bass lines and honey-soaked horns, paired with exacting lyrics about sky-high ambitions, the eight-piece hybrid rap-jazz-R&B group channeled the beating heart of ‘90s East coast hip-hop into legendary performances across the country. When they finally got around to recording, the response was swift and gushing: In 2020, Studies in Grey was long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, and nominated for a Western Canadian Music award.
The band is self-described as “golden era taste, current era based.” To constrict its social location to Winnipeg obscures the internationally-inspired influence that SDTW’s globally sourced players — drawn from American locales like Boston and Ohio, and as far as Argentina — bring to the group. “The city is a cultural hub for other things, but if we’re talking about ‘hip-hop’ or ‘Black’ music, Winnipeg isn’t producing those things in great mass,” explains the band’s lyricist and vocalist, Brenden Kinley, who performs as Brendan Grey.
“Winnipeg and hip-hop aren’t two enticing words that go together, but we have different experiences and world-views than what most people would associate with a group of people that are ‘from Winnipeg.’”
Grey grew up in a musical household filled with the music of artists as diverse as Bruce Cockburn, Grandmaster Flash, Prince, and De La Soul. He remembers falling asleep watching his parents make music together, his mom singing and playing the piano. “I was 10 and started to play instruments, then really never stopped,” he says.
Though Grey works professionally as a drummer, he crafts the lyrics for SDTW with an ear for how melodies can wrap around, amplify, and change lyrics; intentionally hanging them below the percussion on a song, or carefully placing them on the apex of a beat. “Everything is rhythmic,” he explains. “I’ve been drumming and writing lyrics for so long, it’s natural to think about [the relationship] to rhyming and sub-divisions; like taking a solo by using your words.”
Typically, Grey brings lyrics to the band, who come up with an arrangement. But, as we’ve all had to learn to adjust to a new normal of sheltering in place, the group’s songwriting process has become more collaborative, making use of this moment of pause to attempt a new approach to creating.
“[I have] one or two close friends that are producers. Essentially, I would make the demos and then bring those to the band, who would re-interpret them,” says Grey. “As far as lyrics, it’s just me sitting and writing; some of the stuff on the record is more than five years old, and some of it was written just a few days before going into the studio.
“When it’s all boiled down, it’s Black resistance music” — Brendan Grey of Super Duty Tough Work
“I have a few books, and a whole bunch of loose-leaf pieces of paper: I go through them, lay them out, look at them, and move stuff from page to page. Now we’re doing a lot more group writing, which means getting together and throwing ideas at each other, responding, recording, and then re-visiting.”
It makes sense that the group would be amenable to change. The melodic machinery Super Duty Tough Work have built into their sound pays homage to visionaries of ‘90s boom-bap — Gang Starr, Digable Planets, and A Tribe Called Quest — who were adept at capturing the spirit of the social zeitgeist with a single biting lyric. On “Bounty,” Grey slips in a Nas reference shortly before name-dropping Colin Kaepernick; on “Hypnotic,” he ruminates on success and drive with open-ended curiosity. It’s an intentional semantic decision, rooted in contributing to the legacy of the emancipatory expectation of jazz and the reclamatory ambition of hip hop.
“When it’s all boiled down, it’s Black resistance music,” he explains. “It doesn’t always have to be overt. You don’t always have to make a statement. Sometimes it’s just the act. So, you can either be like, ‘Fuck the police,’ or you can just have a party, or a gathering, where everyone’s having a good time and enjoying themselves. Those are both acts of resistance in my mind. That’s the tradition that Super Duty Tough Work comes out of.”
“FTP” is perhaps the clearest execution of the group’s exploration into the many manifestations of resistance music. Initially inspired by a version of J Dilla’s “Fuck The Police” (not to be confused with NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police,” written by Ice Cube and MC Ren) — that the band would perform during “Dilla Days,” a yearly tribute to the artist — now it rings with a new sense of urgency, as the alarm to defund the police is ringing internationally. Previously unrecorded, Grey wanted to elevate the aspiration of the original.
“Some of the lyrics [on the original] I agreed with 100%, some of them less,” he says. “Honestly, I felt that in some aspects he just wasn’t hitting hard enough.” It became a crowd favorite at their shows, and a contender for the album. “I wasn’t really sure whether to include that on the record or not,” says Grey. “But it needed a second verse, and I was stressed for a really long time.
“It took me over a year to write the second verse, because I wanted it to be fact-checkable; with points that couldn’t be argued easily, or could be taken as a matter of opinion. I tried to make it relatable so that many people can see their experiences in the music — when we can see that we’re all fighting the same thing, and that those issues cross, that’s power.”