Jazz invades in Hip Hop
Many Hip Hop artists have been involved in Jazz-rap, but the story has not always been linear. When Hip Hop evolves, the sub-genre evolves too.
The birth of Jazz-rap in Hip Hop dates back to the late 80’s with groups like Gang Starr and the Natives Tongues, who were among the first to sample music from the greatest Jazz artists. Artists like Q-Tip, DJ Premier, or a little later Pete Rock, will spend hours digging up vinyl in record stores, and will allow the greatest achievements of this sub-genre. They will integrate loops of trumpets, saxophones, basses, etc. in their productions. And the will to express oneself here will pass by the lyrics with a generally political and afro centric content, sometimes in an abstract way as for A Tribe Called Quest, sometimes more direct as for Gang Starr. The greatest albums that will come out of this period are The Low End Theory of A Tribe Called Quest, Mecca and the Soul Brother of Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Straight Out The Jungle of the Jungle Borthers or Daily Operation of Gang Starr to name a few.
A little later, in 1994, artists like Nas and Common will release some of the most emblematic albums of the sub-genre with respectively Illmatic and Resurrection. Although the two albums are quite different in content, the samples used are indeed taken from Jazz albums. While Nas describes the streets of New York with clever metaphors over dark beats, Common uses smoother beats to dictate his conscious lyrics.
For some groups, Jazz-rap was the only possible solution. Groups like Digable Planets used their fathers’ vinyl records, having nothing else at hand, to sample them and integrate loops into their music. The result, in my opinion, is one of the greatest jazz-rap albums ever recorded with Reachin in 1993, where they philosophize with abstract rhymes and multiple references on time and space.
Even if sampling was the most used technique in the advent of jazz-rap, and in rap in general, some groups will distinguish themselves by including live organic instruments, as it is the case of the group The Roots and notably the album Do You Want More, including jazz improvisations alongside rapped verses. Others, not having instrumentalists on their side, will invite Jazz artists on their albums. Most notable are De La Soul with Buhloone Mindstate or Gang Starr rapper Guru with his four-volume Jazzmattazz series. On these albums, we find the greatest Jazzmen like Donald Byrd, Maceo Parker or Courtney Pine.
While the West Coast is generally considered as the land of Funk for rap, Jazz-rap will reach Los Angeles with groups that will be strongly inspired by the Native Tongues movement in particular. As an outsider, this scene will be considered as the alternative rap scene of Los Angeles in the early 90s. Groups like The Pharcyde or the Freestyle Fellowship collective are the greatest representatives with incredible albums like Bizarre Ride II or Labcabincalifornia for the first one and To Whom It May Concern or Innercity Griots for the second one. The Pharcydes reappropriate the Jazz-rap with funny and comical lyrics. On their side, Freestyle Fellowship excel with lyrics of a clever complexity and an unprecedented art of freestyle. More underground, the group The Nonce also marked the fans of this time with a hypnotic Jazz-rap on World Ultimate in 1995.
In the second half of the 90’s, the sub-genre starts to decline in favor of a genre that will be more oriented towards Pop and RnB, with the label Bad Boy especially. However, some artists will keep the jazz-rap alive by integrating more and more elements of Soul, notably the collective of rappers, crooners and instrumentalists of the Soulquarians, composed of both pioneers like Q-Tip, The Roots or Common, but also newcomers like J Dilla, Slum Village or Mos Def. Albums like Fantastic Vol. 2 by Slum Village, Black On Both Side by Mos Def or Things Fall Appart by The Roots were made during this period of the sub-genre.
From the 2000’s, only a few resistants remain. Jazz-rap seems to have lost its appeal to the general public. However, with his remix album Shades of Blue in 2003, Mablib will revive the fallen period of Blue Note Records where the greatest jazzmen of this generation have distinguished themselves, such as Miles Davis, Art Barkley, Ronnie Foster or Freddie Hubbard. Windmills of the Soul by Kero One can also be cited as an excellent album containing live instruments mixing Jazz, Funk and Soul. I’ll finish with one of the last outstanding attempts: To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar, who managed to pay a nice tribute to this period.
Jazz-rap had its glory period with great albums that marked the history of Hip Hop. The nostalgic of the sub-genre, of which I can sometimes be a part, will be able to console themselves by reopening the old records of this time now expired.