Photo: A Tribe Called Quest
Credit: Rolling Stone
On the surface, it might not seem like jazz and hip-hop have that much in common, but they’re more closely related than you might think. Both genres have foundations in improvisation and flow, both rely on constant permutations (lyrical or melodic) around a consistent backing, and both have proffered some of the most personally expressive pieces of music in existence. Despite the fact that some of the most hardcore fans of either genre may not be particularly receptive to the other style, there’s an unquestionable link between jazz and hip-hop.
Like most genres, jazz-rap has had its fair share of progenitors. It was only a matter of time before the members of one camp started borrowing from their contemporaries. Gil Scott-Heron’s debut album Pieces Of A Man included prominent jazz-funk and proto-rap styles, whilst Miles Davis experimented with hip-hop rhythms on his final album Doo Bop. But the record which many would consider the first fully-fledged jazz-rap album – The Low End Theory – arrived in 1991, courtesy of A Tribe Called Quest (whose co-founder, Phife Dawg, sadly passed away earlier this week). The album was ground-breaking, featuring what would become Tribe’s signature style of laid-back rhymes over airy, mellow jazz samples, and is considered a staple of golden-age hip-hop. Through the light, breezy flow and straight-talking delivery of cuts like Verses From the Abstract and Check The Rhime, Tribe set themselves apart from both their gangsta rap predecessors and their golden-age contemporaries.
A lot of rappers soon began to follow the path initially trodden by A Tribe Called Quest. Alternative hip-hop masters De La Soul soon began to dabble in jazz sampling, complementing their mesmerising flow and socially conscious lyrics with hypnotic jazz melodies. Meanwhile, artists like Digable Planets and Guru took the style one step further through the inclusion of live jazz instrumentation. Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 was the first record to combine rapped vocals with a live jazz backing band, featuring notable musicians such as Branford Marsalis and Donald Byrd. Mainstream rappers like Common, Mos Def and Nas also began to experiment with more jazz-oriented beats and melodies, occasionally managing to throw a spotlight on the style and bring it some much needed commercial attention in the process.
Even today, jazz-rap is finding new ways to manifest itself. Canadian jazz quartet BADBADNOTGOOD take enormous influence from hip-hop and electronic music, allowing them to carve out a unique sound which really takes the fusion of jazz and hip-hop aesthetics a step further.
Their 2015 collaboration with Ghostface Killah is a perfect example of modern jazz-rap, and is a fine album, regardless of genre. Elsewhere, Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 magnum opus To Pimp A Butterfly is dripping with jazz, funk and soul influences, largely due to the compositional and technical input of noted saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who had a hand in shaping the album. In particular, For Free? (Interlude), which also benefits from the angular piano melodies of Robert Glasper and the proficient drumming of Ronald Bruner Jr., is the closest thing to a fusion between rap and free jazz I’ve ever heard.
Check out the tracks mentioned below, and ease yourself into the Easter weekend with the laid-back grooves that jazz-rap has to offer.
A Tribe Called Quest – Jazz (We’ve Got) Guru – Loungin’ Kendrick Lamar – For Free? (Interlude) Digable Planets – Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat) Common – Resurrection BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Tone’s Rap De La Soul – Stakes Is High A Tribe Called Quest – Electric Relaxation