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When A Tribe Called Quest emerged in the early 1990s, the band was at the forefront of an innovative new scene melding jazz influences into hip-hop. Three decades later, Tribe’s ground-breaking music can be counted among the formative influences of a generation of hip-hop-reared jazz musicians, many of whom first discovered jazz by tracing the band’s samples back to their sources.Now, one of Tribe’s founding members, DJ and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad, is taking a new approach to the hybridization of the two genres. Muhammad teamed with the equally revered producer Adrian Younge (who has worked with the likes of Jay-Z and the Wu-Tang Clan) to launch Jazz Is Dead, a new record label that grew out of a Los Angeles concert series of the same name.
In its first year of existence, the label has released an introductory sampler and four albums featuring the co-founders in collaboration with undersung jazz luminaries including organist Doug Carn and vibraphonist Roy Ayers, as well as singer-songwriter Marcos Valle and jazz-funk trio Azymuth from Brazil. Another slate of releases is scheduled for 2021, kicking off in April with Jazz Is Dead 006 with saxophonist Gary Bartz.“I've sampled a lot of these artists,” Muhammad says via Zoom from his L.A. studio. “Adrian and I have been raised on their music, and it’s helped shape my level of musicianship and the way that I see the world. So when we decided to venture into a creative space with these luminaries, we wanted to [explore] the aspects of their music that meant the most to us and that has helped to shape us, while keeping the foundations of hip-hop in mind.”
[caption id="attachment_37383" align="alignleft" width="253"] Adrian Younge[/caption]
The Jazz Is Dead project is far from Muhammad’s first direct collaboration with his jazz idols. A Tribe Called Quest famously invited legendary bassist Ron Carter into the studio during the production of their 1991 sophomore album, The Low End Theory. The difference between then and now reflects the DJ’s own evolution as an artist and his ascendance to the exalted status in which he’s always held his own influences.“At the time we brought Ron Carter into the studio,” Muhammad recalls, “we were just sitting on the other side of the glass, watching in awe while this master did his thing. Now, we’re masters in our own right and we can jump in there with them.”The results hark back to the finest moments of each artist’s career — Ayers’ pioneering mid-’70s soul-jazz hits, for instance, or Carn’s spiritual excursions for the Black Jazz label — and reexamine them through a modern lens. In part, it’s an exercise in reaching back: Younge’s studio is built on vintage analog technology, while the new compositions are heavily influenced by the elders’ bodies of work. That was wholly intentional, Muhammad explains.“I've always wanted to take my next life and go into archeology,” he says. “It took me some time to really figure out that I was already doing that. Uncovering these records and the stories and lives that went into these records is what we do every day. From the technical aspect, the sound [of those records] is a factor in the way that they feel, so it's important for us to take some of the old and some of the new to capture where we are right now.”