The news that the legendary Herbie Hancock has once again hooked up with experimental west coast mainstays Flying Lotus and Thundercat is but only the latest step in the constantly evolving relationship between jazz and hip-hop. Though Hancock previously collaborated with Flying Lotus on last year’s ‘You’re Dead!’ LP, and played keyboard on Thundercat’s ‘Lone Wolf And Cub’ track earlier this year, it’s worth retracing how we arrived at this nascent scene, where jazz legends now feel comfortable to mingle with today’s pioneering underground artists.
Ever since beat-maker extraordinaire DJ Premier - one half of renowned underground crew Gang Starr alongside rapper Guru - began to mine ancient bebop for samples (Gang Starr’s 1988 breakout single ‘Manifest’ is built around the opening riffs of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis’s sublime ‘Night In Tunisia’), jazz’s various subgenres have proved a rich and fertile environment for rap producers.
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The fledgling movement would truly blossom in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as part of hip-hop’s wider sample-based Golden Age. While Stetsasonic’s ‘Talkin’ All That Jazz’ (1988) helped lay down the blueprint of fusing live instrumentation with samplers, it was A Tribe Called Quest – who had earlier utilised Donald Byrd’s ‘Think Twice’ on ‘Footprints’ (1990) – who would delve into the possibilities of jazz-rap more fully on their all-time classic second LP, 1991’s 'The Low End Theory', examining the linkages between the two genres on tracks like ‘Excursions’ and ‘Jazz (We’ve Got)’.
Meanwhile, Gang Starr’s rep as the torchbearers for the new jazz rap sound were solidified with their 1990 single ‘Jazz Thing’. The song, which featured on the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s jazz-centred movie Mo Better Blues, found Guru saluting the genre’s giants over Primo‘s bop-heavy backdrop: “Charlie Mingus, such nimble fingers/Dropping the bass, all over the place/And Max Roach, cymbals socking/Bass drum talking, snare drum rocking/Restructuring, the metaphysics of a jazz thing…” and declaring John Coltrane “a man supreme”.
The jazz rap sub-genre yielded crossover smashes such as Dream Warriors’s 1991 single ‘My Definition Of A Boombastic Jazz Style’ (underpinned by a hefty slice of Quincy Jones’s ’Soul Bossa Nova’), Digable Planets’ ‘Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)’, and US3’s ‘Cantaloop’ (both 1992), bringing the sound to mainstream attention. ‘Cantaloop’ in particular bore its influences most explicitly: released on Blue Note Records, the song was composed entirely of jazz samples from the likes of Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock.
But while many of the brighter, breezier commercial hits would lodge themselves in the broader public consciousness, albums such as Ahmad Jamal’s stunning ‘The Awakening’ provided a continuing inspiration to underground hardcore rappers and producers. Indeed, the album helped make the minor piano loop a centrepiece of the rugged east coast underground rap sound from the ‘90s through to today, with countless classics by the likes of Nas, Roc Marciano, Common, Jeru Tha Damaja, Shadez Of Brooklyn and many more clipping samples from that single source.
It’s not just from jazz’s sonics where rappers have drawn inspiration. The air of cool attached to labels like Blue Note began to bleed into hip-hop’s artwork, and just as producers dug in the crates for records to sample, designers began borrowing from the artwork in which the music was housed. Two notable examples among many included The Beatnuts’ 1993 Intoxicated Demons EP, which reworked Hank Mobley’s The Turnaround LP sleeve, and Tone Loc’s Loc’ed After Dark (1989), which re-imagined Donald Byrd’s ‘A New Perspective’ cover.
All of which proved enough to reverse the seemingly one-way traffic, with jazz musicians beginning to move in the other direction to embrace hip-hop. Guru’s series of Jazzmatazz LPs featured a heavyweight line-up of guests including Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers, and Lonnie Liston Smith and garnered widespread acclaim. Later, renowned LA-based producer Madlib launched the Yesterday’s New Quintet side project focusing on a fictional jazz band, which would subsequently see him drafted in by Blue Note Records to remix their back catalogue on 2003’s Shades Of Blue LP. On the flipside, however, it wasn’t all perfect. Branford Marsalis’s 1994 Buckshot Lefonque project proved a somewhat unfocused and meandering effort: while half the material was an intoxicating blast of thumping jazz-influenced hip-hop beats, the rest was bogged down by patience-testing spoken word efforts and tiresome noodling.
Yet, after more than a quarter-century of cross-pollination, the new Herbie Hancock-Flying Lotus-Thundercat collaborations prove this particular sub-genre can continue to take each genre in new and interesting directions.