Mark Runyon | ConcertTour.org
Jazz. Hip-hop. Jazz. Hip-hop. Jazz. Hip-hop. Just two different things at their heart, really, when you think about it. Right? When you think about the genesis of jazz, the first thing that crosses your mind is probably a bunch of well-dressed gentlemen knocking back illegal booze and forming tightly-wound groups in the underbelly of glamorous cities. And hip-hop, well, that’s much more likely to be…a tight group of…distinctly dressed players doing illegal substances in the ghetto of glamorous cities. Oh, Okay. So superficially speaking, they might seem pretty similar. But what about the music? Surely, you couldn’t find any more disparate styles than that of jazz and hip-hop?
There’s no doubt that hip-hop came first in the battle of the bands. And some people argue that jazz has always been a major influence on the way that hip-hop music is put together, if not necessarily the way it actually sounds. But where to begin?
Take one very obvious example of this musical crossover: scatting. Now, before you start imagining some kind of weird jazz fetish club, scatting is short for scat-singing. Scat-singing is an improvised vocal performance wherein the singer makes up words or syllables, as well as forming a rhythm and a melody that fit in with the song they’ve been singing. The crossover? Rapping. While it’s not nonsense words (depending on who you listen to, of course), rapping requires the performer to come up with a rhythm and a distinctive melody almost entirely through the use of their voice, and many big rappers started out with improv battles. Artists made use of a lot of vocal tricks that had originated in the days of jazz, such as call and response and a strong emphasis on improvisation as a point of pride.
If you take a close look at a lot of the instrumentation that was used by a number of hip-hop artists, it seems to tie in to jazz almost completely. There’s usually a heavy, strong rhythm section that drives the song along, with a powerful vocal line and various brass instruments filling out the remaining space. Look at something like “Crazy in Love” — a major hip-hop/R&B number that launched the solo career of Beyonce and consolidated Jay-Z’s position as a major player on the scene that’s built around the inclusion of a big horn riff. You probably couldn’t count the number of songs you’ve heard this kind of instrumentation on — a lot of it inspired by jazz numbers. In the late eighties and early nineties, many artists began directly sampling jazz songs in their music — “Oh Shit” by The Pharcyde in 1992, “Stranded on Death Row” by Dr Dre — as a direct nod to the genre that had spawned them. Some people claimed that this was because so many early hip-hop musicians used old records as samples because that was what was available, but it’s difficult to know how far this is the case.
CNN discussed the similarities between jazz and hip-hop in a piece on hip-hop-jazz act Jaspects; “It was the music of rebellion and youth. Artists traded witty improvisations onstage chronicling the pain and the promise of being black in America, inspiring inner-city and rural Southern audiences alike in nightclubs and on street corners.” And it’s this point which is probably the most important in the comparison — where these two genres came from is remarkably similar, and hip-hop went on to follow a comparable trajectory to jazz in the years after jazz largely died out. Both genres started out, broadly, as parts of the African-American community that found their way into the broader entertainment world. Both were born as an experimental, vastly maligned style that was favored by the underground musicians of the time, mostly intended for the borders of society to dance to. And — though their beginnings came decades apart — both were eventually embraced as part of modern society and opened up to a wider range of musicians from all over the world. Both genres laughed in the faces of what came before them, establishing themselves as vast umbrellas beneath which artists could establish any number of sub-genres and experimental asides. At their best, both genres pushed boundaries and opened doors so that every artists would have a place to play their music to an audience that appreciated it.
So, that’s where the world of jazz and hip-hop meld into one. While many of these similarities come from the way this music is actually put together, most of it comes from the attitude — that sense of ‘do as you please as long as it sounds awesome.’ They might seem separate on the surface, but the genres share a history — with hip-hop carrying on the bastion of jazz to this day.