It may have been pioneered in the late 1980s, but despite this, jazz-rap remains a staple genre for anyone seeking out super-smooth sounds.
When people ask me what kind of music I like, I always reply with: “Songs with nice sounds”. I could never put my finger on a specific genre. It’s a bit hip-hoppy, a bit jazzy and a bit rappy. Little did I know that I had in fact described jazz rap down to a tee. It wasn’t until recently when Spotify recommended a playlist called ‘Jazz Rap’, that it dawned on me. I opened the playlist and low-and-behold, it was rammed with my favourite artists.
But what actually is jazz rap? In its basic form, it’s a sub-genre of hip-hop that fuses rap rhythms with traditional jazz samples – trumpets, pianos, double basses and saxophones are often used to bring the tracks to life. Characterised by repeated jazz loops and steady beats, jazz rap is less hardcore than its gangsta rap brothers. Although, having said this, it strongly centres around similar topics, like Afro-centrism and race, but more often than not in a positive light.
According to American rapper Guru, the brain behind ‘Guru’s Jazzmatazz Vol.1’, the genre’s aim was to reclaim jazz as a genre, by bringing it back to the streets. This meant wiping away the elitism that had built up over the years. The result? Traditional jazz-aficionados are outraged, as the genre’s highbrow image is turned on its head by game-changing urbanites. Jazz rap was made to shake things up.
As far as music genres go, jazz rap is relatively new, having only been acknowledged since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when A Tribe Called Quest waltzed onto the scene. The New York group will forever be hailed as one of the genre’s trailblazers. Their second album ‘The Low End Theory’, released in 1991, was key in shaping this emerging strand of hip-hop. Its distinctive jazz loops, boom-bap beats and mellow rap verses showcase everything jazz rap songs are supposed to encompass. Q-Tip, the group’s main producer and MC, has since gone on to release his own material and collaborate with the likes of the Chemical Brothers, Solange, Anderson.Paak and Mark Ronson, therefore spreading his mastery across the music industry in dribs and drabs.
Shortly after A Tribe Called Quest hit the big time, artists like Gang Starr and Jungle Brothers climbed aboard the jazz rap train, which lead to the nineties becoming a thriving hub of ‘woke’ lyrics rolling alongside groove-inducing beats. Other notable names include Digable Planets, who helped catalyse the movement with their 1993 album Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), as well as De La Soul with their 1989 debut 3 Feet High And Rising.
Although jazz rap’s birthplace was in the Big Apple, its infectious beats quickly spread through the East Coast and across the pond. It was Londoners Us3 who became the first hip-hop act to sign with Blue Note Records, the esteemed American jazz record label that has been pumping out noteworthy jazz talent since 1939.
The noughties saw a gradual decline in the genre’s prominence, leaving space for a much-welcome revival. Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly is credited in the jazz rap world for kickstarting a whole new chapter, nearly thirty years after it first emerged. Lamar picked the brains and expertise of a number of musicians, most of whom are well-versed in the world of jazz. Charismatic bassist Thundercat features in the electric opener ‘Wesley’s Theory’, while world-renowned jazz pianist Robert Glasper is responsible for the piano features in multiple tracks.
While the height of true nineties jazz rap has been and gone, it has triggered a new age of jazz-influenced sounds, in the UK especially. From Tom Misch’s low-slung hip-hop beats to Ezra Collective’s jazz instrumentation, Loyle Carner’s mellow bars to Noname’s soft jazz loops, smooth music is catching on and entering all corners of the music world.
Jazz-style collaborations are becoming an increasingly popular option for artists wanting to flex a new and creative sound. As well as his work with Kendrick Lamar, Robert Glasper recently worked with DJ and record producer KAYTRANADA to create The ArtScience Remixes. Although rapping features in the EP, the main focus is the music, which morphs into a liquidy, electronic-infused take on jazz. In fact, it’s something we’re seeing a lot more frequently in electronic music today, with the emergence of nu jazz, otherwise known as jazztronica. But one thing’s certain – all these jazz rap manifestations prove that serotonin-inducing grooves and beats remain king.
Cover image credit: Contraband Entertainment