In the late 80s and early 90s, bands like Gang Starr and The Roots brought us the revolutionary meetings of the minds that is jazz-infused hip-hop. Sometimes abbreviated into jazz rap or jazz hop, the style was born as a kind of homage to hip-hop’s evolutionary predecessors like jazz and blues. The purpose of the genre was in part an attempt to merge African-American tunes from the past with the prevalent style of the present, and partially because it just sounds really damn cool.
In total contradiction to the manic and unstructured stereotype that jazz holds, the musical side of jazz hop is mostly comprised of concise, repeated jazz loops over simple 808 beats. The style has since evolved and has had a massive influence on modern hip hop. Artists like Badbadnotgood and Flying Lotus, though unique in their own sound, have clearly been influenced by the likes of Jazzmatazz, for instance. Badbadnotgood in particular have flipped this around, taken rap out of the equation (most of the time), and amplified that uniquely hip-hop-infused-jazz sound, to create some of the most sprawling and wonderfully unique music in recent years.
With some jazz enthusiasts harbouring an air of musical elitism, the fusion wasn’t initially met with total acceptance. It was common to hear passive-aggressive remarks that hinted at jazz rap being the vulgarisation of jazz music.
The late jazz saxophonist Jackie McLean stated, “When I was coming up it was mandatory to know something about music and play an instrument. In order to do this it required hours and years of dedicated study and practice. Today you can just rhyme and talk and have a talent for matching words and rhythms together you are pretty much on your way; it wasn’t quite that easy when I was coming along.”
Others like Nas have argued that hip-hop naturally evolved from jazz, and the genre is simply a humble homage to its roots. Genre purity aside, it is without doubt that jazz hop has had a huge impact on articulating important subjects. The genre has acted as a means of expression for a range of socio-political issues from communities that were previously silenced into repression. From blatant attacks on the status quo to embracing double bass from the 1930s, the genre makes huge statements both musically and lyrically.
Here’s three of our favourite jazzy hip-hop records.
De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising
3 Feet High and Rising is often referred to as the album that cemented jazz hop as its own sub-genre. With timeless pieces like Me, Myself and I and The Magic Number it quickly became one of the few albums that gained huge commercial and critical success simultaneously.
It achieves the purpose it set out for – connecting previously unassociated genres in a massive way. In past interviews, the group spoke about how their eclectic taste in genre started at a young age. “At my school, which was a mixture of black and white kids, we would rap over Annie Lennox or Steve Miller. They weren’t the coolest, but our love for them was genuine.”
The album pays homage to a range of different genres in different ways. Even the title was named after Johnny Cash‘s 5 Feet High and Rising, and that same track is sampled in The Magic Number, with references to daisies and 60s counter culture. The catchy track is often blamed for De La being crowned the first hippie types in hip-hop, a subset championed today by artists like A$AP Rocky and Raury.
In an interview with The Guardian, Posdnuos states, “It was playful, childlike and fun. We’d rap about ‘Mr Fish swimming in a bathroom sink’. We’d dip into psychedelia or jazz.”
Both musically and lyrically, the album is reminiscent of whimsical ’40s freestyle jazz artists like Louis Prima. “You asked my wife to wash your clothes, you rascal you!”
The album has an extremely accessible feel-good vibe and has helped different communities find common ground through music for decades.
The entire album cost $13,000 to make. The cheap production inspired people from all walks of life to get into music and jazz rap groups started sprouting up all over the US.To give some perspective, sample king Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy cost over $3 million.
De La Soul are one of the biggest household names in jazz rap and truly succeed at introducing rap to a broader range of audience.
A Tribe Called Quest – People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm
People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is without doubt a crucial album in the hip-hop canon. In 1990, Tribe followed De La’s suit in shattering entrenched rap boundaries by sampling an eclectic range of jazz, soul and funk from Lou Reed, Billy Brooks, Eugene McDaniels and more.
The reason for their huge success is likely due to their lyrical accessibility. Instead of taking blatant political sides like some of their contemporaries, Tribe focused on acknowledging their influences by rapping over underground samples. Even today, this album encourages listeners to shake the dust off those old records and gain a more thorough understanding of the history and roots of hip-hop.
Throughout Bonita Applebum there are samples from 50s jazz-bop group Cannonball Adderley Quintet. The group had an endless supply of sultry, smooth saxophone lines to sample, but opted for a four-second Soul Virgo sample, “sex, sex, sex”.
Moves like this – along with an entire song about losing a wallet in El Segundo – are what made Tribe’s legitimacy a topic of controversy. Woven between socially aware lyrics and wacky humour, it was a new kind of sound, and lyricism, that some weren’t ready to embrace. Rolling Stone stated, “the rappers of A Tribe Called Quest tend to mumble in understated monotones that feel self-satisfied, even bored.” That being said, it simultaneously had excellent critical appeal and eventually became a vital album for any head. The 25th anniversary addition was released last year with remixes by J. Cole, CeeLo Green and Pharrell Williams.
Although their lyrics do tend to perpetuate the less endearing qualities rap is notorious for, it’s important to acknowledge why they decided to choose the artists they sampled. Many preached the same progressive views as Gil Scott Heron and many other jazz rappers from the 80s and 90s.
Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side was sampled in Can I Kick It. When the original first came out in 1972, it was remarkably successful, despite the content being taboo at the time. It touches on characters Reed had met throughout his life, including a transsexual who found a haven in Andy Warhol’s studio. Such a topic was eccentric and controversial at the time, but the soothing bassline still managed to infiltrate radios all over the globe. Step by step, it contributed to a still-prevalent struggle of overcoming transphobia in most forms of media.
Can I Kick It also features samples from Spinning Wheel by Lonnie Smith. Smith is a 74 year old organ player, and a pioneer for alternative jazz stylings. Though he lacks mainstream appeal, between 2003 and 2014 The Jazz Journalist named him as Organ Keyboardist of the Year nine times. It is a prime example of rap groups resurrecting lesser known jazz artists and paying their respects.
Digable Planets – Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)
Even from its earliest days, hip-hop quickly grew to be synonymous with drug use, gang life, and sex. So, it was a bold move for Digable Planets to approach issues like abortion, feminism and drug addiction at all, let alone with the grace and realism that they did in Reachin’. In their brilliant song named Femme Fetal – a play on the archaic “femme fatale”, Butterfly describes a delicate situation between his two friends who were faced with an accidental pregnancy.
“You know Sid, that fly kid who I love? Our love was often a verb, and spontaneity has brought a third.”
The tone is a stark contrast to the misogynistic stereotypes surrounding rap. Making a statement about a concept as complex as abortion is difficult at the best of times. Butterfly’s ability to address the idiocy of pro-lifers in so few words is truly impressive, not to mention game-changing for the genre.
“Life doesn’t stop at birth. And for the child born to the unprepared, it might even get worse. The situation would surely change if they were to find themselves in it. Supporters of the H-Bomb and fire bombing clinics. What type of shit is that? Orwellian, in fact.”
This is in reference to Clarence Thomas and Souter who are members of the Supreme Court in the US. They both assisted in overturning Roe v. Wade – a landmark decision for the 14th amendment for women’s right to deciding on an abortion.
Digable Planets would rhyme “tactics” with “prophylactics” and reference George Orwell’s dystopia, in a sea of bitches and partying and gangstas. It helped to open up a whole new palette of concepts for future rappers to embrace.
Based on Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler’s description of the music on the Reachin‘, the decision to sample jazz seems less of an active choice than a convenience. He stated, “It was all about resources really… I just went and got the records that I had around me. And a lot of those were my dad’s shit which was lots of jazz.”
After hearing track 7 – Last Of The Spiddyocks – it’s clear that his association with jazz runs much deeper than implied in that interview. The track drops names and pays respects to a multitude of jazz musicians who lost their lives to drug use.
Butterfly is rapping over a bass line by Charles Mingus, when he mentions him. “I toss these major losses on the Mingus jazzy strum”. He also references Charlie “Bird” Parker who struggled with heroin addiction; “Felt like Bird Parker when I shot it in my veins.”
He even blames the US system for the loss of these pioneers, rapping “I’m pinnin’ Uncle Sam for the death of swingin’ quotes, for losin’ Bud Powell sliding over Dizzy’s notes.” This relates to the pianist Bud Powell playing keys over Dizzy Gillespie’s saxophone in the Jazz At Massey Hall live album. Both musicians have associations with heroin and the tone foreshadows the aggressive political nature of their next album Blowout Comb (1994).
Reachin‘ became extremely popular and because of its lyrical accessibility it is their biggest album to date. The single Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat) was in the top 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the album took home a Grammy in 1994, and has since been listed as one of the greats, not just of jazz hop, but hip-hop as a whole.