Jazz And Hip Hop Can They Really Mix?
lets get in the mix!
Personally I would never have got into Jazz if I hadn’t been into hip hop. I went from collecting drum breaks to horn samples and keys on to appreciating the whole piece of music and wanting to know more about the musicians. So YES is my answer but check out this cool blog from Jazz.com by Jared Pauley.
For well over a century now, jazz has been the chameleon of American music. It has incorporated elements from classical, Latin, world, funk and R&B. The very meaning of the word jazz suggests that in order for it to be such the music must swing, among other criteria. In some regards this could be true, but I would like to argue that jazz represents just a portion of the broader landscape of African-American music. The use of categories and names of styles is unavoidable, but I feel that at times the process of labeling music restricts us as musicians, writers and listeners from recognizing the connections between sub-genres of music.
Case in point are the connections between jazz and hip-hop. Culturally, socially, and musically the two share more in common than some would acknowledge. From the 1960s up to today, jazz and hip-hop continue to borrow and experiment with each other. They both contain elements of improvisation; in hip-hop, free styling and DJing represent this, while in jazz much of the exchange between musicians is improvised. The idea of a jazz tradition can make it difficult to categorize musical efforts between people like Branford Marsalis and DJ Premier. But why must the rigidities of the canon and tradition reject the musical offerings of the 1970s and beyond as questionable? To do this trivializes the entire legacy of how the word jazz came to mean what it does. It is my opinion that the experimentation between jazz and hip-hop represent just one of the examples that put this hypocrisy to test. Just because sound doesnt conform to a certain standard doesn’t disqualify it from being called jazz.
In 1960, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln recorded We Insist! Max Roachs Freedom Now Suite. Though categorized as jazz, Lincolns vocals and Roachs playing are by most standards not all that jazzy. This record dealt with issues facing black America. Lincoln’s and Roachs performances achieved a feverish pitch that can still be felt when heard today. Their collective approach to dealing with subject matter in their art is no different than the efforts of Public Enemy in the late 1980s. Hip-hop acts clearly paid odes to people like this and (for example) John Coltrane, who also deeply explored spirituality in his music through works which dealt with similar subject matter.
In the mid-1960s, with the introduction of avant-garde, R&B and soul influences in jazz, the storied critic with his own definition of what defines jazz was put to the challenge. This period, including the crisscrossing patterns of jazz during the 1970s, helped spin the community into enough circles that it hasnt recovered to this day. We are still debating whether to include or exclude certain musicians and recordings because they dont live up to various expectations. Thus, as writers, people with supposed objectivity, we have failed in some ways to give jazz its proper respect and analysis. Excluding people has long been part of the jazz critical tradition, yet enough time has passed that the tradition is more indefinable and open than ever.
Hip-hop began to emerge in the late 1960s just as jazz was undergoing another transformation. The work of the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron represent the arguable seed of plantation for hip-hop music. The Last Poets 1970 self-titled album and their 1971 release This is Madness broadcasted poetry concerning civil rights, poverty and universal struggle over a single percussionist, Poets member Nilaja. Gil Scott-Herons albums were also well known and very influential. His 1971 album Pieces of a Man was a huge record in its day. The influence of his song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised on the emergence of hip-hop is undeniable. Whether coincidence or not, featured on the 3-day session were seasoned jazz bassist Ron Carter and jazz flutist Hubert Laws. This was one of the first widely heard recordings on which jazz artists and a spoken-word artist had met on vinyl.
By 1973, DJ Kool Herc, a naturalized Jamaican, was flooding the South Bronx, New York with his technique of putting breaks in records. This technique involved spinning the same two records at once and thus resulted in the DJ being able to manipulate the sound spectrum. Emerging from this came the vocal styling born in Jamaica called toasting. With toasting, the DJ rhymed in certain sequences, and eventually this technique gave birth to the modern emcee. With the emergence of the emcee, hip-hop was now a multi-defined culture with bold elements of improvisation, with DJing and emceeing at the forefront.
In 1983, Herbie Hancock along with producer Bill Laswell changed popular music with their single Rockit from Hancocks album Future Shock. The single prominently featured DJ Grand Master D.ST on turntables. This marked one of the first times in which scratching had been used on a popular recording. And it is no coincidence that Hancock, the jazz chameleon himself, was involved in one of the first popular fusions of jazz and hip-hop. In the late 1980s, especially in New York City, African-American culture was a melting pot. Hip-hops first golden era was born in 1986, and many of its proprietors embraced jazz music, citing its influence from the use of vocal deliveries emulating horn rhythms to the actual samples themselves.
Groups like Gang Starr, De la Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Jungle Brothers were hip-hop acts who all possessed an affinity with jazz music. A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr in particular embraced jazz not only as subject matter but from the musical end as well. Gang Starr appeared on the soundtrack to director Spike Lee’s 1990 movie Mo’ Better Blues, a film about young jazz musicians surviving and thriving in New York City. Featured on the song ‘Jazz Thing,’ along with emcee G.U.R.U. and DJ Premier, was the late great pianist Kenny Kirkland. In 1991, A Tribe Called Quest released their second album, The Low End Theory. It featured the songs ‘Verses From the Abstract,’ with bassist Ron Carter providing the bassline, and ‘Jazz (We’ve Got).’
Also during this time, British-born Maurice Bernstein and South African-born Jonathan Rudnick founded Giant Step, a promotion company that eventually became a record label and produced shows featuring live instrumentalists such as Greg Osby alongside live turntables.
The early 1990s represent the largest attempted cross pollination between hip-hop and jazz artists. In 1991, trumpeter Miles Davis began working on what was his last album, Doo-Bop, with hip-hop producer Easy Mo Bee. Davis wanted to create an album that represented the summer sounds he heard from his window in Manhattan. In 1993, Philly-bred hip-hop act Digable Planets released their debut album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Sound), which featured samples from the likes of Herbie Hancock, Grant Green, Sonny Rollins, the Last Poets, Art Blakey, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. In November 1993, Blue Note Records artist Us3 was given permission to sample anything in the catalog for their album Hand on the Torch. The result was their Herbie Hancock-sampled “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),” which was one of the biggest singles of the decade.
Additionally in 1993, Gang Starr emcee G.U.R.U. began his series of releases dubbed Jazzmatazz, which paired the emcee with jazz musicians. The first volume featured such musicians as Donald Byrd, Branford Marsalis and Roy Ayers. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis formed his own group called Buckshot LeFonque and released several albums during the decade, with 1994’s eponymous release, featuring the track “Breakfast @ Denny’s,” being the most memorable — because it featured Gang Starr’s DJ Premier on many songs from the album. Throughout the rest of the 1990s and the new millennium, many artists, including Medeski Martin & Wood and Christian McBride, began to tour with deejays, most notably with DJ Logic.
This brings us to the current day where collaborations between jazz and hip-hop artists continue. Particularly here in New York City, the practice is alive and well through the efforts of hip-hop emcees Mos Def and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, as well as jazz pianist Robert Glasper and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. New companies have surfaced over the last two years that promote jazz and hip-hop artists in a live context, most notably Berklee alumnus Meghan Stabile’s Revive Da Live. In conjunction with Revive, Glasper and his group the Experiment, which features drummer extraordinaire Chris ‘Daddy’ Dave, bassist Derrick Hodge and saxophonist/keyboardist Casey Benjamin, have backed the likes of Q-Tip and Mos Def at different venues around the country.
Now some may ask how this qualifies as jazz? I counter that the two cultures have come to such a stalemate that it was only a matter of time before further experimentation occurred. Revive Da Live has also produced shows for Q-Tip where he was backed by the Roy Hargrove big band, and Mos Def performed in June of this year at Carnegie Hall with poet Gil Scott-Heron and a big band featuring young jazz musicians Stacey Dillard and Marcus Strickland.
How should the jazz tradition deal with the musical efforts of jazz and hip-hop artists since the 1990s through today? Some will say that it’s not jazz if it doesn’t swing, even though other elements, including improvisation, are present in these shows and recordings. As I stated earlier, to ignore the experimentation of jazz and hip-hop artists is to neglect how the word jazz came to its current meaning. If we applied the same double standard in use since the 1970s, we could simply dismiss this as some new genre, jazz-rap or a variant of fusion. I strongly disagree with this approach. I feel that the tradition is riper than ever to be redefined, and as critics, writers and musicians it’s our job to make sure the legacy of jazz gets its proper and objective treatment. With so many young jazz musicians growing up listening to hip-hop and other styles of music, the traditional definition of jazz is only going to be further put to the test.
by Jared Pauley c/o Jazz.com