Does Hip-Hop Belong in Jazz?

Since the late 1980s, hip-hop has embraced the influence of jazz, both through beats made from jazz samples and through rappers who recognize the relationship between the flow of rap delivery and a bebop improviser. Groups like A Tribe Call Quest, Gang Starr, and De La Soul are notable for bringing jazz-influenced hip-hop to the mainstream. In the past year, two of the biggest jazz stars have reversed this relationship with their new albums, incorporating elements from hip-hop and modern R&B music into their “jazz.”

The two albums to which I refer are Robert Glasper’s Black Radio and Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society; these albums have a lot in common (besides the word radio in their titles). Both incorporate a more electric band than most jazz, hip-hop-style drumbeats, and tight song structures. Neither album features extensive extended solo sections, but rather offers concentrated moments of their creators’ ideas in pop song-length pieces. Glasper, who has been musical director for the rapper Yasiin Bey (nee Mos Def), made a record that truly walks the line between jazz and hip-hop music by featuring significant guest appearances from rappers and R&B singers, like Yasiin Bey, Lupe Fiasco, Erykah Badu, and Bilal.

However, the reciprocal influence of jazz and hip-hop artists has been going for at least the past decade. Back in 2003, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove released the first RH Factor album, Hard Groove, which is an earlier album that combined jazz musicians with hip-hop music. Hard Groove features Erykah Badu (like Black Radio), and rapping by Common and Q-Tip. Even when there are no guest vocals, Hard Groove still draws heavily from hip-hop in the drum, bass, and guitar grooves. Hargrove shows how great be-bop-informed improvisation can sound over this kind of music. The excellent bass work by Pino Palladino and Reggie Washington is particularly notable.

Another early example of a beautiful union of hip-hop and jazz is 2001’s The Philadelphia Experiment, a collaboration of the great jazz bassist Christian McBride, the classical/jazz pianist Uri Caine, and the hip-hop drummer ?uestlove of the Roots. Though this album is firmly jazz (and even swings at times), ?uestlove’s signature drumming adds some funky hip-hop beats to give the album its wonderful unique sound.

And even though it was his most recent album that partially inspired me to start this piece, I also want to mention Robert Glasper’s 2007 In My Element, which was recorded with Glasper’s acoustic trio. It features a number of tracks that use straight, hip-hop drumming, played tastefully by Damion Reid. Among them is “F.T.B.,” which appears again on Black Radio with added vocals Ledis and the same kind of groove. The song “J Dillaludes” may serve best to illustrate how well hip-hop music can translate into jazz. “J Dillaludes” is a medley of beats composed by the great rap producer J Dilla performed by Glasper’s trio. To hear music originally composed as hip-hop sound so great played by a jazz trio shows exactly how interconnected hip-hop and jazz are. In the case of hip-hop and jazz, influence is not a one-way street.

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