From grassroots to Grammy: the unlikely rise of Snarky Puppy

Recently, I was standing in a sea of the most diverse audience I’d ever seen in Atlanta—young and old, black and white, dreadlocks and crew cuts, polos and dashikis, all tightly packed in a sold out show to see a band that should never have graduated from playing in people’s basements.

The narrative of nine-piece jazz fusion collective Snarky Puppy hinges on the kind of perseverance almost unheard of in a time when blog buzz trumps word-of-mouth fame. They revel in song structures that are supposed to be reserved for only the most die-hard jazz fanatics. None of their songs fit into the confines of three-minute pop sweetness and all of them derive their ecstatic energy from extended improvisation and an unwieldy synthesis of hip-hop, funk, rock and soul.

Almost a decade before the tightly knit collective had their sights set on taking home the Grammy for best R&B; performance, 19-year-old bassist Micheal League was set on filling the basement of a pizza parlor in the small college town of Denton, Texas. He was attending the University of North Texas, a breeding ground for talented musicians, and started recruiting friends to perform his jazz compositions. After successfully packing the pizza parlor, League set his sights on expanding his devoted fanbase past the confines of Denton.

He would email hundreds of venues across the Midwest and East coast, typically receiving only a handful of replies, and even then only a scant amount of promoters took a chance on the budding group. Despite having no major label support, no outside management and almost no press, League continued to bring his nine-piece band across America in an unglamorous fashion, often sleeping in friend’s basements and playing house parties.

Oh, and this DIY touring life wasn’t just a brief beginning either. For three years they toiled away in obscurity, slowly building the foundation of a fierce following that supported them and forced critics to start noticing the little jazz engine that could. In 2010, Snarky Puppy finally gained the support of a well-established label when Philadelphia-based Ropeadope records released their fourth album, appropiately titled “Tell Your Friends.”

From there the Pups’ momentum reached a boiling point, their house parties had turned into solid gigs that numbered as much as 300 in a year. In addition to a debilitating touring schedule, League booked the group to teach dozens of educational workshops and masterclasses in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.

What’s most hopeful about the meteoric rise of Snarky Puppy is that despite numerous lineup changes and an influx of critical and commercial praise, their sound remains grounded in its jazz roots. Sure, League’s compositions bring in the catchy, crowd-pleasing elements of funk and hip-hop, but the hum-able hooks are anchored by unwieldy improvised solos—the bane of pop songwriting.

After establishing themselves as an instrumental powerhouse, Snarky Puppy finally recruited a host of vocal talent for 2013’s “Family Dinner.” It was the track “Something,” led by soul singer Lalah Hathaway, from this album that lifted the group out of the depths of the musical underground and onto the glittery Grammy stage.

In his acceptance speech, League seemed to be the person most surprised with Snarky Puppy’s success. Before exiting the stage with most of the same people who bravely followed him into the basement of that pizza parlor, League summed up his story in one simple sentence, “to be here right now is completely unimaginable.”