How Jazz Became the “Mother of Hip Hop”

Jazz and hip hop have been in a live­ly con­ver­sa­tion in recent years, break­ing new ground for both forms, as the work of artists like Kendrick Lamar and his col­lab­o­ra­tors amply shows. Lamar cre­at­ed his major­ly-acclaimed albums To Pimp a But­ter­fly and Damn with the indis­pens­able play­ing and arrang­ing of jazz-fusion sax­o­phon­ist Kamasi Wash­ing­ton and his fre­quent side­man, bassist Stephen “Thun­der­cat” Bruner, who have con­tributed to the work of Fly­ing Lotus. That’s the artist name of Stephen Elli­son, nephew of Alice and John Coltrane, who has also been instru­men­tal, no pun intend­ed, in reshap­ing the sound of con­tem­po­rary hip hop.

“The influ­ence cuts both ways—from jazz to hip hop and back again,” writes John Lewis at The Guardian. Or as Wash­ing­ton puts it, “We’ve now got a whole gen­er­a­tion of jazz musi­cians who have been brought up with hip-hop. We’ve grown up along­side rap­pers and DJs, we’ve heard this music all our life. We are as flu­ent in J Dil­la and Dr Dre as we are in Min­gus and Coltrane.”

The fusion of avant-garde hip hop with live jazz impro­vi­sa­tion, instru­men­ta­tion, and arrang­ing may seem like a new phe­nom­e­non, though one could date it at least as far back as the Roots’ ear­ly 90s debut.

“Hip hop’s love affair with jazz goes back more than 30 years,” Lewis writes. The music was every­where in the 90s, in the fore­ground on the records of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Diga­ble Plan­ets and in more cut-and-paste ways in albums like Nas’ instant clas­sic Ill­mat­ic, pro­duced by Pete Rock, who craft­ed tracks like “N.Y. State of Mind” from lay­ered sam­ples of Ahmad Jamal, Don­ald Byrd, and lit­tle-known jazz-funk out­fits like Jim­my Gor­don & His Jaz­zn­pops Band. As pianist Robert Glasper shows above in the brief NPR Jazz Night in Amer­i­ca video at the top, “Jazz is the moth­er of hip-hop.”

Both jazz and hip hop were born out of oppres­sion, and both are forms of protest music, “going against the grain,” Glasper argues. But there’s more to it. Why do hip hop pro­duc­ers grav­i­tate toward jazz, chop­ping and lift­ing clas­sics and obscure rar­i­ties? For a wealth of melod­ic content—”for a mood, for a son­ic tim­bre, for a unique rhyth­mic com­po­nent,” writes inter­view­er Alex Ariff on YouTube; for a shared his­to­ry of strug­gle and cel­e­bra­tion and a desire to change the sound of music with each release. Glasper’s brief, three-minute demon­stra­tion is fas­ci­nat­ing and it could, as one YouTube com­menter points out, eas­i­ly extend to three hours.

Until he makes that video, you can find jazz sam­ples in hip hop records to your heart’s eter­nal con­tent at and con­sid­er how the influ­ence of hip hop on jazz musi­cians has cre­at­ed new forms of fusion akin to Miles Davis’ exper­i­ments in the 70s. “I nev­er had a prob­lem mov­ing between jazz and hip hop,” says Wash­ing­ton. “Peo­ple like to com­part­men­tal­ize music, espe­cial­ly African-Amer­i­can music, but it’s real­ly one thing. One very wide thing…. When I first played some Coltrane-type stuff on the Pimp a But­ter­fly ses­sions, Kendrick got it imme­di­ate­ly. ‘I want it to sound like it’s on fire,’ he’d say. That’s the kind of com­mon ground that the best jazz and the best hip-hop have.”

via The Kids Should See This

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How Nina Simone Became Hip Hop’s “Secret Weapon”: From Lau­ryn Hill to Jay Z and Kanye West

The His­to­ry of Hip Hop Music Visu­al­ized on a Turntable Cir­cuit Dia­gram: Fea­tures 700 Artists, from DJ Kool Herc to Kanye West

150 Songs from 100+ Rap­pers Get Art­ful­ly Woven into One Great Mashup: Watch the “40 Years of Hip Hop”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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