I was showering the other day, pondering my jazz roots and thinking about when I first listened to jazz. I was trying very hard to connect with the younger me, to understand my mindset, but to no avail. Naturally, it wasn’t until I was on the tram that it hit me. For some bizarre reason, I do my best thinking on the tram.
The answer to my question was hip-hop. The question itself: how did I get into jazz? Or perhaps, where did it all begin?
Hip-hop. Two words and a hyphen. Hip-hop was my formal introduction to jazz.
This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Artists like The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron read their poetry over beats and jazz tunes in the ‘70s but it was still a few years before hip-hop really got started, and we have a Jamaican named Kool Herc and his giant sound system to thank for that.
Hip-hop draws from jazz as much as it does disco. The improvised nature of the ‘battle’ is like an improvised solo in a jazz track, right? It’s a weak connection, but these young black kids were growing up in the 60s and 70s hearing horns blowing. Each time they heard a new version of a song, the difference was the improvisation. Early MCs didn’t write lyrics, they just spat out whatever rhymes came to their head. Sure, they had basics to work with, but they would use whatever was available (people, music, moods) to influence their rhyming.
Even the idea of the hip-hop producer can be traced to jazz. As you all know, the hip-hop producer does more than just check mic levels- he constructs the beat, he works out where ‘this’ goes and how ‘that’ should sound.
If you have listened to ‘Bitches’ Brew’ or ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’ by Miles Davis, you may be aware that the tracks you hear on the album were pieced together by producer Teo Macero after the individual musicians had played their parts. Miles’ horn may be mixed with Herbie’s organ, but this was all done after the music had been recorded. It was then up to Macero to piece it all together and create the final track.
If you think of songs like Transmitting Live from Mars by De La Soul, The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel by Grandmaster Flash and everything by the Avalanches, these are all the efforts of somebody picking up this piece of music here, and that hook over there, and then laying it over a beat hoping to make something people will listen to.
So, my love from jazz stems from hip-hop. Funny how it always comes back to that.
I have put together a short playlist you can find here of hip-hop songs either with strong jazz influences or featuring jazz artists. I hope you like it.
Sebastien de Robillard