A Musical Love Affair
Jazz, characterized by free improvisation and syncopation with instruments like piano, trumpet, saxophone and drums, has its far-reaching tendrils in much of the music we experience today. Jazz has particularly deep roots in the world of hip-hop. Since the 1990s, hip-hop artists have been paying homage to their jazz roots in bold and mold-breaking ways, blurring the lines between conventional hip-hop and jazz. This musical relationship fostered some of the most compelling and pioneering musical projects of the past three decades.
Both jazz and hip-hop are relatively new art forms that developed and thrived within the margins of society. Luke Mombrea, who studies music composition at the University of California, Los Angeles, commented on their connection.
“I would definitely say one thing that’s very similar is that they are both African American art forms that allow creativity in the sense that they were not in the mainstream and could break a lot of conventions,” Mombrea said.
Some of the early rudimentary features of hip-hop were hinted at in the 1920s when jazz musicians began to scat over their different instrumentals giving more body and life to their music. This method allowed them to reflect the improvisational character of jazz in their singing. The structural bones of hip-hop further developed within the Bronx in the 1970s when Jamaican disc jockey Clive Campbell, also known as DJ Kool Herc, began to ad lib over his records.
Hip-hop and jazz both embrace the power of improvisation, an underlying parallel between them. For jazz, improvisation occurs as different instruments spin off the chord progression to express themselves individually, while hip-hop applies improvisation by delivering off-the-cuff verses known as freestyles.
Jacam Manricks, a jazz musician, composer, arranger, and music professor at UC Davis, commented on this aspect.
“It gives the artist a compositional role in a way because improvisation is composition sped up in real time,” Manricks said. “So it’s exciting, it’s spontaneous, it’s never really done the same. It gives the performer or performers in the band power.”
One of the first hip-hop artists to fully embrace jazz as an integral part of their sound was A Tribe Called Quest, a hip-hop group from the St. Albans neighborhood in Queens, New York, consisting of Q-Tip, MC Phife Dawg, DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and MC Jarobi White. In their 1991 critically-acclaimed album “The Low End Theory,” they sampled numerous jazz tracks like Jimmy Mcgriff’s “Green Dolphin Street” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Suite Sioux.” These samples added an unorthodox dimension to their sound, implementing hard-hitting drum lines, deep driving upright bass riffs and brassy cutting horns. The group also actively referenced jazz in their lyrics, aptly asserting “We’ve got the jazz” and “What’s Duke Ellington without that swing?”
Jazz-rap was both a new musical invention and a nod to the group’s African American heritage. “The Low End Theory” set off a cascade effect that rippled through the genre causing many artists to substitute basic repetitive beats for a live jazz sound that added a refined character to their flow. Some notable artists who added their own flavor to the diverse, vibrant rhythms of jazz were Digable Planets and De la Soul.
Mombrea elaborated on the significant benefits that jazz instrumentals can contribute to hip-hop.
“The way jazz instrumentals are used in hip-hop are unique in the sense that you have this more rhythmically off-kilter beat and more syncopated-type instrumental,” Mombrea said. “There’s more area for you to flow onto, so its less rigid. Things that sample jazz are more rhythmically complex so there’s more things you can find. You can get so much variation with jazz, more than any other type of music.”
Jazz got yet another boost into the hip-hop world in the 2000s when rhythm and blues artist D’Angelo came out with his album “Voodoo.” The album featured Questlove, the gifted co-founder of The Roots, on drums.
Mombrea commented on the impact of Questlove’s drums on the hip-hop and music community.
“A really prominent aspect that’s influencing a lot of this jazz and modern hip-hop production is actually a lot of the drumming that was done by Questlove on D’Angelo’s ‘Voodoo,’” Mombrea said. “D’Angelo asked Questlove to play drums as though he was drunk. This meant a super heavy swing, using drums that are slightly behind the beat.”
For hip-hop artists, this originally jazz swing drum technique created new and unconventional grooves that elevated their flow’s rhythmic ingenuity. Mombrea continued to elaborate on the unique freedom this style developed on albums like Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
“One of the things that’s very much prevalent, especially in ‘To Pimp a Butterfly,’ is that these swing-pockets allow artists to create very intricate rhythmic lines over the top,” Mombrea said.
“To Pimp a Butterfly” is a recent landmark in the fusion of jazz-rap. The album itself features prominent up-and-coming modern jazz artists like pianist Robert Glasper, multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin and saxophonist Kamasi Washington.
Manricks commented on the unique capabilities that jazz artists like these bring to the collaborative process.
“Jazz musicians are very fluent in their particular type of language so when they collaborate with artists like Kendrick Lamar they have a whole lexicon of harmony, melody and rhythm that they can draw upon because the art form [of jazz] is evolving all the time and has taken so many parts,” Manricks said.
“To Pimp a Butterfly” is uniquely groundbreaking because rather than only sampling past jazz albums to piece together beats, the musicians improvised jazz riffs on the spot and let the creative process unfold from there.
Mombrea continued to comment on the intricacies of the album.
“One of the things that I think was unique in Kendrick’s album was that when hip-hop usually uses jazz, it uses a loop so you don’t get the same kind of progression in jazz,” Mombrea said. “But in the Kendrick album, he had this really unique combination of having loops, but also having stuff that really had jazz progressions and live musicians in there. In one respect it was jazz-hip hop, but then it also had its own original jazz.”
Mombrea also noted that hip-hop returns the favor of influence.
“Jazz is getting into hip-hop, but hip-hop is getting into jazz too,” Mombrea said.
When hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar, Common and Mos Def work closely with modern jazz artists like Glasper and Washington, they create a melting pot of talent and technique that naturally diffuses itself amongst the group.
Manrick provided some insight into how this diffusion of technique and musical evolution are thoroughly ingrained within jazz’s DNA.
“Jazz has always been a collage and about modernity,” Manrick said. “It’s nothing that is completely original, it all comes from something. One remarkable thing about jazz is that in the short time it’s been around about 100 years, its come the same amount of distance in terms of musical complexity, soaking up other cultures and incorporating other forms of music in 100 years as classical music had done over centuries.”
The adaptive and progressive nature of jazz supplements its relationship with hip-hop. In arms, the two grow in tandem as they draw from each other to move music forward, captivating and delighting listeners all along the way.
Written by: Andrew Williams — firstname.lastname@example.org