Jazzy Wayz* - writing on jazz and hip-hop

Jazzy Wayz* (Notes towards an essay)

For a long while I’ve been pestered by a desire to write about jazz/hip-hop connections, moving it towards a discussion that doesn’t just cite samples as evidence of the link between the genres, but rather locates the influence of jazz on hip-hop in terms of the aesthetic.

The writing below - on London producer/musician Alfa Mist's 2017 record, Antiphon is a beginning of this work and reflects some of these thoughts. 

What you’ll find in this ‘series’ – even if that sounds a bit lofty and organised, my ideas are free-form and scattered for now - are occasional notes; writing that I will shape into a more considered piece, or series of pieces, at some point in the future. My focus will be on contemporary acts, to try and move the analysis on from inevitable nods to the recent hip-hop past (Madlib, GURU ...) though they – or at least the sensibility and work of the L.A. producer - will be at its heart, to a degree.

Too often in hip-hop music criticism there is an off-hand reference to an ‘old-school/jazzy/90s’ feel or whatever it might be in reviews, with no real discussion of what this means. It’s become a marker, a point of reference, a kind of shorthand. My goal here is to go a bit deeper, even if this writing will also reflect my process and progress, let’s say.

Disclaimer: the use of the ‘jazz sample’ by hip-hop producers, past and present, has often seemed problematic to me as to understand jazz, to really get it means appreciating the movement of music over time. To notice how elements shift/coalesce/break down/splinter/merge. This development is hard, or even impossible, to achieve within the framework of classic hip-hop production where the sample is just one element repeated and the drums (usually) come first.

The value of the sample works on the basis of its sound, its capacity to echo and work with other sounds, so it can’t really embody movement (even if producers, of course, play with this sonic element, stretching and manipulating it, giving it form. It’s electronic – there is no pure, unadulterated sound; it’s not the sound of wind on leaves outside on a tree). 

Of course there is movement in hip-hop instrumentals. Indeed, the skill and finesse of the producer lies in the way they are able to capture the spirit of live performance, or if not that to manipulate the sonic elements in such a way that there is development and change. Perhaps if I were to sum up the nature of this inquiry it would be this: to understand better the essential nature of movement and development in jazz and hip-hop, in a musical sense. 

I would not like to give the impression that hip-hop is a kind of blocky construction - sample 1, sample 2 and repeat - even if some of the least imaginative examples of the genre can be just that, boring and predictable.   

And yet there is a tension here, in that the idea of taking a snippet from a jazz composition and then repeating it just because it sounds good arguably goes against the very essence of jazz; moreover, it could be said that it also shows a lack of understanding, or disrespect to past musicians and their intentions.

Whereas the great jazz musicians of the past wanted to recreate the essence of freedom and collaboration, in the hands of average hip-hop producers a ‘jazz sample’ has the potential to be used in a way that enacts containment, entrapment. Caging a bird in wire, and then clipping its wings.   

This may be why it is, in fact, relatively rare to see pure, unadulterated jazz samples being used by key producers in the past or present.

Other less 'weighty' genres, prog-rock/Funk … and music from other eras, the 70s of course but also the 80s, or sampling other hip-hop tracks seem to be preferred. (Some of the 90s greats did rely on jazz compositions as their main source, it seems, and became known for this. This is why, I’d suggest, it’s become such a short-hand reference for critics as they are still in that mindset of seeing the world through a golden-tinge).   

Perhaps taking a jazz sample was seen to be too easy, too obvious by those seeking out musical challenges; see Kool Keith’s comment in this video interview posted in 2014 about how he tried in his solo work to move the production sound forward by using ‘new’ records, back in the 90s so as to not ‘just’ rap over a Ron Carter sample (at 5 mins), for example … Or maybe it reflected mixed feelings among producers who loved jazz in a really profound way, on a spirit level.

One last thing: I’m interested in writing this as well because of the way people have been responding to my work, here on this site and elsewhere (see my article on Weldon Irvine published in Ambrosia for Heads earlier this week).

It makes me so happy, for example, to see how one piece on Pharaoh Sanders’ Harvest Time, which is little more than a few paragraphs is being shared alongside the hip-hop writing. There seems to be a kind of renewed interest in the jazz/hip-hop nexus these days. It is also arguably a period of renewal for both genres, with new blood being recognised and new voices coming through. This, of course, appeals to me and I want to contribute to this moment. 

So here, then, is my first missive on the truly transcendent record Antiphon by London based producer, Alfa Mist that is certainly conscious of this landscape, while allowing the imprint of the artist to shine through; just like any classic jazz release from the past, of course.

Keeping it nice and pure and forever personal.