A year ago, I discussed the relationship of jazz & hip-hop. As I said then, there is an “uneasy tension” between the two. This issue appeared as early as the Eighties.
For example, hip-hop was already smarting under the charge that sampling wasn’t creative (also see this earlier post on the myth that hip-hop was a product of poverty). Stetsasonic‘s “Talkin’ All That Jazz” was a little defensive in tone, and it overplayed its argument lyrically, but the music made the point very effectively.
Both this example from 1988 — and D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince‘s song “A Touch of Jazz” from 1987 — use jazz well, but I’m not sure that puts them in the arena of jazz themselves. Probably the best integration of the two genres was “Jazz Thing” off the Mo’ Better Blues (1990) soundtrack, which was driven by Branford Marsalis and his band (I’m not talking about the “Video Mix” available on Gang Starr’s Full Clip best-of compilation). The song worked better than anything on Guru’s Jazzmatazz albums.
Greg Tate, in his essay “15 Arguments in Favor of the Future of Hip Hop,” wrote:
From nearly the beginning of the art form and market enterprise we know as hip hop, there have been attempts to link it with the art form we know as jazz. Herbie Hancock was the first major jazz figure I heard publicly recognize a relationship between beboppers composing new melodies over Tin Pan Alley chord changes and hip hop MCs composing new lyrics over smelly and decomposing funk grooves from the ’60s and ’70s. Harry Allen was the first essayist of the hip hop generation I heard formulate the position that hip hop was the new jazz.
…there are several aesthetic priorities both share in common. Most notably, an obsession with syncopation, and timbral exaggeration… [in other words] what notes you can find by sliding, gliding, and eliding the purity of the tempered scale as rigidly found on the piano. Jazz and hip hop also share passions for quotation, alliteration, and collage strategies, for the conversion of accidents into design elements, for the articulation of black male desire, anxiety, mortality, and repression, and for the need to bend European musical devices to black expressive needs…
There are several problems with Tate’s argument. First, as good as rappers can be, in terms of lyrical content and verbal delivery, I’m not sure I’d compare Rakim rapping to Coltrane blowing. Second, note how he describes the samples as “smelly and decomposing funk grooves.” The samples were used because of their musical value, not because the original songs were worthless.
I would agree that jazz and hip-hop share a love of appropriation and recontextualization. I would agree that they share a love of syncopated rhythms (an issue touched on briefly here, with two tracks that are hip-hop in feel, with slight jazz elements).
I would add a third factor: repetition. Jazz music often (but not always) establishes a rhythm that continues in the background while soloists play over it. As Joseph Schloss puts it in Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop: “Virtually all hip-hop music is based on a cyclic form.” A musical expression — perhaps a sampled drum break or a keyboard line or whatever — is looped, to repeat over and over. As Schloss writes:
Regardless of the technique used to realize it, the producer’s ideal is to create a repeating figure that can be altered through the addition or subtraction of various elements at different times.
Stetsasonic make the defense of hip-hop’s artfulness as follows:
You criticize our method
Of how we make records
You said it wasn’t art
So now we’re gonna rip you apart
You see, you misunderstood
A sample is a tactic
A portion of my method, a tool
In fact it’s only of importance when I make it a priority
And what we sample is loved by the majority
Tell the truth, James Brown was old
‘Til Eric and Rakim came out with “I Got Soul”
Rap brings back old R&B
And if we would not
People could of forgot
Again, there are flaws here. Sampling is not a portion of hip-hop’s method. As is made clear in Schloss’ research, sampling is the foundation of hip-hop; it is an essential component. I wouldn’t defend sampling by reasons of popularity or because old songs are resurrected. Producers typically sample lesser known songs and are notorious secretive about the sources of the materials. The reason to sample is because of the aesthetics of the resulting sound is valued.
This brings us to a final point of comparison between jazz and hip-hop. Throughout the course of Making Beats, it becomes clear that there are a large number of rules that guide how sampling is utilized and how hip-hop music is constructed. But repeatedly, the producers interviewed say that the key factor guiding them is whether it sounds good. Similarly, jazz has had traditions or rules over the years, while innovators broke from them because they liked what they heard when they did.
How does it sound? Does it sound good? Then it is a good thing to do.
Stetsasonic – Talkin’ All That Jazz (Dominoes Vocal) — BUY D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince – A Touch of Jazz (Collapsed in the Street Mix)