Hip-Hop and the Shape of Jazz to Come

“You could find the abstract
listening to hip hop,
My pops used to say
it reminded him of be-bop”

Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, on “Excursions” from The Low End Theory

“The first 78 I had was Charlie Parker with strings playing “Just Friends” and “If I Should Lose You”. Buck Hill gave me that record, and also the 78 that had “Star Eyes” on one side and “Au Privave” on the other. From those two records, I fell in love with jazz I couldn’t stop thinking about it, singing about it; it wasn’t like I took drum lessons or piano lessons, but it just took holdI couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

Billy Hart, from this interview conducted by Ethan Iverson

Listening to music has always me led to encounters with the abstract, but it didn’t become an obsession until I was introduced to hip-hop at age seven. I remember scouring the radio for hours with a blank cassette ready, waiting to capture new singles from emcees like The Notorious B.I.G., Busta Rhymes, and Method Man.

Things aren’t too different these days; I’m still listening to the latest from Lil’ Wayne and Three 6 Mafia (I posit that crunk music is a new minimalism for the 21st century). However, subsequently exploring Indian music, experimental rock, blues, reggae, alternative, and eventually jazz/creative music, western classical, minimalist and drone music has led me to develop an affinity for the diversely-informed stylings of Madlib/Quasimoto, MF DOOM, Dizzee Rascal, Dr. Octagon/Doom, and J Dilla.

My experience is not unique in this regardafter all, the interest of the millennial generation has propelled hip-hop to the commanding heights of music, art, and culture. I have noticed that many of my peers trace having the same extrainstrumental fascination with music described by Mr. Hart above to the day they got their first Biggie record, not their first Bird record. It is clear that Mr. Hart himself recognizes this trend; in his new curriculum on the history (and future) of jazz drumming, he lists producers alongside great percussionists from Afro-Carribean, Brazilian, and Indian traditions as determinants of a modern, integrated approach.

I first fell in love with jazz after listening to the record Monk’s Dream featuring Thelonious Monk and his quartet. Monk’s approach in particular exuded “gangsterism”; the same “handmade” quality (this term is discussed below) of the music I grew up listening to. I later learned that I had in fact been hearing Monk all alonghis instantly identifiable attack shapes the feel of several hip-hop tracks from the 90’s, including “Shame on a N**” from **The Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).

This reminds me that my perspective on music is framed by a reverse-chronological lens; the way I hear jazz is inevitably shaped by hip-hop, which is, in turn, informed by jazz. Vijay Iyer once shared with me an observation made by Aaron Stewart (formerly a co-leader of Fieldwork)the idea that each generation of young African-Americans has been forced to invent its own art forms, resulting largely from a lack of resources to teach the existing ones. However, there are clearly some common threads/aesthetics that have remained intact throughout the years, as well as an underlying feeling that some people get from both idioms.

Numerous approaches to synthesizing jazz and hip-hop have been explored over the past ten years. I have heard the jazz-based interpretations of hip-hop, often infused with neo-gospel or world music traditions. To my ears, this approach is frequently guilty of producing a watered-down product lacking the sophistication of either idiom. I find myself more drawn towards hip-hop producers’ interpretations of jazz, and not only because of my temporal position. Through sampling and other direct means of integration, hip-hop allows jazz to exist unfettered within it, resulting in a composite, recontextualized product analogous to Monk’s treatment of standards (Iyer 2005).

Mr. Iyer, who’s work and perspective has immensely influenced/inspired me, explains my use of the term “handmade” more clearly in this interview:

“I grew up with hip-hop just like everyone else, so that’s a big part of who I am Some of that music has almost a punk rock orientation in terms of its handmade qualityand that’s what I strive for in jazz too. Even if something has a lot of formal complexity, I’m trying to have that handmade quality speak through it so you can hear the human being behind it.”

I find myself universally in favor of such an orientation. At a time when technical facility is too often an end in and of itself (again, see Iyer’s eloquent analysis), this hard-won quality seems to epitomize the innovative tradition of jazz more than anything else. And, as I consider myself to be a guitarist and composer grounded in that tradition, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about ways to integrate the highly advanced hip-hop lexicon into my compositional/improvisational language by hand. The music of Iyer’s quartet, as well as that of Ahmad Jamal’s trio, Jimi Hendrix, and Joanna Newsom, provides a great starting point for a study of form and the many ways in which such influences can be honestly and rigorously channeled

Not everyone is upbeat about the impact that hip-hop is having on young jazz musicians, or the fact that it exists in general. Wynton Marsalis dismisses the genre as “ghetto minstrelsy”, claiming that, “Hip-hop attacks itself. It has no merit, rhythmically, musically, lyrically”, and Stanley Crouch declared that “nothing of actual import is going to come out of the world of hip-hop”. Nonetheless, it seems as though hip-hop will continue to shape the aesthetic lens through which the youth view jazz, leading to a reimagined idiom perhaps more in line with the handmade tradition after all.