Back around the turn of the 21st century, commentators trying to situate the hip-hop movement…
Back around the turn of the 21st century, commentators trying to situate the hip-hop movement within American music — and particularly as part of the African-American timeline — came up with the phrase “from bebop to hip-hop.” It didn’t fare particularly well: Many hip-hop artists had yet to work their way back to bebop, and most jazz artists had a fair amount of disdain for hip-hop music and especially rap, its most conspicuous innovation. But that was 20 years ago which, in terms of cultural evolution, represents several generations. While there are plenty of purists in both camps, younger musicians working today in either genre have proved much more forgiving. They’re anxious to incorporate a myriad of sounds and techniques from both camps, others as well. Stigmas have dropped away; moreover, these artists have worked to create organic fusions that go beyond merely superimposing one idiom on top of the other.One reason is obvious: Jazz musicians under the age of 40 have grown up with hip-hop as the predominant popular music of their time. No surprise there. In the late 1960s, young jazz musicians such as Gary Burton, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and Chick Corea had no issue bringing their jazz sensibilities to the rock music of their own day (even as their jazz elders similarly sneered at The Beatles and The Who). Out of that came fusion, the dominant jazz style of the 1970s. Will the continually evolving jazz/hip-hop hybrid have the same effect on jazz in the 2020s? Some say it has already gone there, as indicated by the popularity of non-swing rhythms and the influential work of Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper and Joel Ross, to name a few — many of them signed to Blue Note Records, which has cyclically captured and blazoned the jazz ethos. Whatever its shelf life, the intersection of jazz and hip-hop has become crowded with skillful and passionate artists who could well direct the musical traffic for years to come. We spoke with several of them.
MAURICE “MOBETTA” BROWN
Trumpet player and Chicago-area native Maurice Brown moved to New Orleans to study with clarinetist Alvin Batiste. While there, he began conceptualizing his 2004 album Hip to Bop, among the most effective early mashups of jazz and hip-hop. Since then, Brown, 40, has collaborated on projects ranging from blues (Tedeschi Trucks Band) to neo-soul (Musiq Soulchild) to, increasingly, hip-hop (De La Soul, Talib Kweli). Before the pandemic, he toured widely with rapper-producer Anderson .Paak.When I was making Hip to Bop, my whole process was to do a jazz record but I really wanted it to have an urban pulse. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to do that without watering it down. But from a composer’s point of view, it was natural, because I loved hip-hop and I loved jazz. I think a lot of people tried to do it the opposite way. They wanted to be “relevant,” so they were like, “Oh, let’s do hip-hop jazz!” They had the jazz chops but they didn’t know a lot about hip-hop; but I was already working with some of the best [hip-hop] producers in the game, doing horns, arrangements, some producing work.One thing I did, I made sure that harmonically speaking, I wasn’t limiting myself. A lot of hip-hop music is very sample-based; it’d probably be a couple bars looped, and that would be pretty much the gist of the sound. I was trying to stay away from that, to write melodies that were so catchy that if there were no words, you would just hear the words already. I was trying to approach the music from a very vocal standpoint, so I wasn’t looking at myself as a trumpet player anymore; I was looking at myself as a singer, or as a rapper, when I was improvising. Whenever I think of soloists or rappers, it’s really the same thing. I listen to a guy like Kenny Garrett, and I can hear the hip-hop in his playing. He’s a very well-established jazz artist but he plays like he’s rapping; you can hear it in his delivery and the rhythms.
It’s crazy to see how many cats now are all about this hip-hop/jazz movement, because at that time, it really wasn’t that popular. There was definitely a lack of people who could do both. The closest you’d get would actually be some dope, very talented producers who just really loved jazz — and they played hip-hop. But most of the jazz cats wouldn’t even touch [hip-hop]. Some of those cats thought it was disrespectful to jazz, but it was the exact opposite. They [hip-hop musicians] respected jazz so highly they wanted to make a tribute to it: “This is so beautiful, how can I change this around and flip it and give it a different feeling?” It’s the whole art form of sampling. You know, when I first started getting into producing, I was like [grouchy voice], “I don’t want to sample, I don’t think that’s right.” And then I saw the art form in sampling, and I thought, “Oh man, this is something else.” That’s why I look at [rapper] J Dilla in the same lens as I can look at Charlie Parker — because it’s really that deep, the way that everything comes together to create a whole. You take so many different samples and different keys and different tempos and just make a whole cohesive piece. It’s just mind-blowing, actually, when you really look at it.
Om’Mas Keith, 44, grew up in a jazz household: Both his parents inhabited New York’s avant-garde jazz scene of the 1970s and ’80s. While studying drums with jazz icon Max Roach at UMass Amherst, Keith also scored an internship at RCA Records, which whetted his appetite for pop music and production. Well known as a songwriter, engineer and studio owner, he won a Grammy as one of the producers on singer Frank Ocean’s breakthrough album in 2013, and has worked with Jay-Z, John Legend, Erykah Badu and a host of other top pop artists.For me, the thing that jazz and hip-hop have in common is the attitude — the willingness to break rules and push the boundaries. Another thing, and it’s related, is that musicians from both genres historically come from nothing. Nothing. You were lucky to have had any instruments, anything, to learn how to play — unless you were like a pastor’s kid; those were the kids who would have pianos in the house. Only by the grace of our parents, ancestors and mentors were we able to get any insight. That’s a common thread.So imagine the attitude that you have as a human being when you come from a disadvantaged place, and the whole odds are against you. That is definitely something that bridges us together, that mindset of “gotta make it happen” and necessity being the mother of invention. That’s why there’s so much invention; that’s why Grandmaster Flash invented his techniques — because those things weren’t there for him. John Coltrane had to devise his own theory and write it down.
You have concepts that ring true in both genres. You have rap purists and you have jazz purists, and you have the forward thinkers, people who just stand outside the traditional concept of the idiom, and that’s indicative of both forms, too. It’s almost like people think jazz musicians and hip-hop producers are so different and outside the scope of society. But then they become part of the mainstream culture. I mean, cats were dissing Bob James records, and now, as we all know, they sound great, and everyone samples them. That happens in hip-hop, too. Ageism is a real thing in both worlds; that’s a not-so-positive thing that’s similar. I mean, we always have those who exalt the elders, but then you have cats saying, “Man, I’m not on that old shit. I’m getting onto that new shit.” But if you’re trying to demonstrate what’s inside you, and if it’s old school, you shouldn’t be criticized for it.You can’t have hip-hop without jazz: It’s all taken from that, sonically and rhythmically. Really, all that matters is what does it sound like? But obviously, cats also knew: “What does it look like?” Jazz musicians love being fly; hip-hoppers love being fly. [Trap music pioneer] Gucci Mane loves silk shirts — and so does Wayne Shorter; he wears fly silk shirts, too. It’s all part of the swagger. And supreme swaggy rhythm, the desire to explore rhythm — that’s the bridge between both worlds. That’s why I always try to bridge the gap and make sure cats know what happened before, because more and more now, our people know less and less about our history. They know the image of Thelonious [Monk], but not the recording.
[caption id="attachment_37468" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Makaya McCraven (Photo: David Marques)[/caption]
Since releasing his 2015 album In The Moment, Chicago-based “beat scientist” Makaya McCraven’s heavily collaged mixtape albums have made him a worldwide sensation (while also putting the Chicago-based record label International Anthem on the map). His African-American father is a jazz drummer, his mother a Hungarian vocalist specializing in Eastern European folk music. And, while growing up in Massachusetts, McCraven, 37, was mentored by jazz legends Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef. A powerhouse jazz drummer of notable sensitivity, he’s worked with artists from Kurt Elling to Jeff Parker. His most recent album, 2020’s We’re New Again, is a reimagining of music by Gil Scott-Heron, whom many artists rightfully consider a godfather of hip-hop.I think of jazz musicians as being quite studied, people who are interested in mastering their craft and taking part in the community of musicians that improvise — but also are really open to just finding new music to inspire them. Duke Ellington has a quote where he says that jazz is like a tree: You can follow it down to the roots, but if you go up to the branches, it incorporates a little bit of everything it touches. There’s a direct lineage in the evolution of Black American music, and the many forms and attributes that are shared between these various genres, and how, in the progression of time, these influence each other. If you go through the record collection in a Black household through the last 80 years, you’ll find jazz, R’n’B, soul, funk and hip-hop, because it’s just generations of a diaspora. Hearing all this talk about, “Oh, they’re breaking boundaries by mixing jazz and hip-hop,” I feel like this is the history. It’s the relentless study and search for new music and new sound to put through the process of jazz — the process of mastering your craft, taking part in the legacy of the music, not necessarily by emulating those before you, but by participating in the culture of those before you. I very much think hip-hop is like that.
Stylistically, there’s other ways to see these connections. One of the things about hip-hop musicians was finding these old jazz records or listening to records they may have grown up with, and then repurposing them, you know, through modern techniques of sampling, chopping things up — a lot of what I do. But I find there’s a lot of similarities there with jazz, too. I think of all of this music in some regards as “loop” music. We’re dealing with smaller loops in hip-hop, [but]there is a kinship there with jazz. Jazz operates, in the classic mainstream model, as a longer loop, say, a recurring form such as AABA, and it goes over and over and over and over [with improvisations within that form].Another thing you find in a lot of classic jazz is a kind of sampling. You go through all those old Blue Note records and you learn what we’ll call “the language.” And within that language, there are shared tags, right? There are licks. There are people writing contrafact melodies over existing changes; there are similar songs that have slight alterations that cats stole from each other, or just renamed; there are certain intros and outros to pieces that everybody knows. I think the idea of reusing ideas, and repurposing sound and flipping it, is part of the culture in the DNA of jazz — and of hip-hop.So you take a rapper like Rakim, one of the greatest lyricists of our time, and he talks about listening to Coltrane, trying to understand the flow and to get that as part of his own flow. I could cite so many hip-hop artists that that really look to jazz as their inspiration — and vice versa, where young jazz musicians want to emulate the sounds they hear in hip-hop and incorporate that. And even that’s not new: Miles Davis was doing this in the ’80s.
[caption id="attachment_37469" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Moor Mother (Photo: Bob Sweeney)[/caption]
Camae Ayewa, working under the persona Moor Mother since 2012, has drawn raves for her powerful poetry and equally dynamic presentation; for her indefatigable attention to social activism; and for her take-no-prisoners truth-bound aesthetic. Originally part of the Philadelphia punk scene, she soon gravitated to increasingly experimental hip-hop, documented on dozens of EPs. Her group Black Quantum Futurism taps into the Afrofuturist tradition of Sun Ra and the Afrocentric leanings of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, with whom she toured in 2019. Her work with the free-jazz collective Irreversible Entanglements has showcased her fierce charisma and her strong connection to the jazz tradition, as well as its potential to embrace spoken-word hip-hop.In my work there are certain pillars that have to be interjected into the music, and that’s jazz, that’s gospel, and that’s blues — because I feel those are important to get the story across, that you need these elements, or to me, it’s not a full story. For me, the blues, or free jazz, is not just something you listen to. It’s a tool. And the further you go into the roots of it, you see how powerful it can be. In my opinion, free jazz is an African-American classical tradition, and one reason is that it’s a liberation technology. The second reason is all the rhythms that can be interjected within jazz and especially free jazz; there’s no genre that free jazz cannot touch, because it’s pulling from the unknown, it’s pulling from spirit. It’s an energy conductor, meaning that it creates its own waves, with or without intention — especially if someone is a master of their work. I’m talking about Sun Ra, I’m talking about the Art Ensemble of Chicago; the unknown possibilities that come from that are just incredible.
People don’t really classify me in one particular genre, and one reason is because my work has this jazz element that’s not coming to you as the corporate jazz world wants it to be; it’s kind of like the technology that’s needed for me to put my point across. And when I was touring with the Art Ensemble, that taught me to understand that colors are also intermingling along with the music. Most of us don’t understand that the energy is a multitude of vibrations. There’s healing vibrations, there’s protection vibrations, there’s vibrations to bring out liberation, within you, waking you out of the slumber that the world works so hard to provide — the other energetic realities. Time is not linear. We are not disconnected from our past and our future. So believing that jazz is the first original African- American classical music, how can we not reflect back to that? How can we not honor that? If we don’t, I don’t believe that we’re able to tell full stories. I’m just trying to work towards honoring the heart of hip-hop — the tradition that came up with it: the idea of poetry; the idea of community. You don’t have to be [Allen] Ginsberg or whoever, you can just verbally freestyle about the things that are around you, and that’s very jazz, to me, that’s very blues — finding these stories that are not so mainstream, like listening to Ma Rainey sing about sex. In her time, you would think every song was about Reconstruction or something, but it’s like, “Hey, there’s a life of sex, there’s a life of love, there’s a life of broken hearts, there’s a life of wanting my no-good man back” — these everyday stories that allow us to see what goes on in our communities, besides what people are writing in history books and on timelines. It’s about being so open to understanding that all of these people and their histories play an important role.
MIKE “BLAQUE DYNAMITE” MITCHELL
Percussion prodigy Mike Mitchell, 26, exemplifies his generation’s willingness to embrace almost any idiom and genre. His credits extend from mainstreamers Christian McBride and Bob Mintzer, to modern fusion avatars Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and Kamasi Washington, to a spectrum of pop artists including Michael McDonald and Talib Kweli. While still in high school, Mitchell was tapped by Herbie Hancock for the 2012 International Jazz Day Celebration, and before graduation, he had already toured with Stanley Clarke. He is a member of keyboardist Greg Spero’s smartly blended jazz/hip-hop band Spirit Fingers, and he almost steals the show on bass star Derrick Hodge’s 2020 Blue Note album Color of Noize. His fourth album, due in 2021, will feature his own vocals.I came to music from church. My dad is a drummer, my mom was a singer, and my mom’s dad was pastor of the church where I was born. Hip-hop was something I had to kind of gravitate toward, because I was so used to playing R’n’B, which was the music my parents listened to, like Earth, Wind & Fire. But at Booker T. Washington High School [in Dallas], which is a performing-arts high school, I was exposed to the jazz program, and I went through a huge phase of trying to figure out the swing era, bebop, hard-bop — all the history. And then on the flip side, I was exposed to hip-hop by my friends, because being raised in church, I just didn’t naturally listen to much music outside of the gospel realm. My friends were the ones who showed me who J Dilla was and Flying Lotus, all these different producers. I wasn’t aware there were producers putting out albums.I’m trying to figure out how to combine music in general, not necessarily trying to limit it to anything specific. It’s more of a modern approach versus looking to fuse hip-hop and jazz specifically. Being a person of the hip-hop generation, I’m naturally drawn towards those beats. But because I also study and appreciate jazz history, I love being able to improvise and explore different rhythmic patterns and melodic patterns with different people.
I just like to play with people that are fluent — people that are aware of the gospel language, aware of the jazz language, rock and roll, Latin music or Brazilian music or whatever it is, because that means that we can play anything. I think hip-hop is as important as any of those languages, because there’s an art form to it that makes people move and dance and feel a certain way. It’s the same thing with jazz, with that element of creativity and improvisation that people get excited about ’cause it’s something that’s new. There’s a lot of virtuosic instrumentalists that are terrible when they play music that’s simple — they don’t feel it. But me being a musician from Dallas, everybody’s really big on feel. So even if you play, like, really fast or really loud or whatever, if you can’t hop into a groove it will feel unnatural, it feels uneven, it feels awkward; no one’s going to want to play with you. Most jazz musicians are really good and they solo fine, and they can play with people. And then there’s a lot of musicians that solo really, really, really well, but play not well at all with people. So I’d rather have feel only than have technique only. Of course, it’s amazing to have both. But feel is definitely more important than technique for me.