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 Whosampled.com 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.”