Jazz They’ve Got: Hip-Hop & Improvised Music’s Unbreakable Union

Five albums that demonstrate the myriad ways jazz sounds are currently percolating through hip-hop.

Image: Mick Jenkins performs in Atlanta in February. Credit: Paras Griffin/Getty.

Say “jazz rap” and a few touchstones instantly come to mind. There’s A Tribe Called Quest’s “Jazz (We’ve Got),” with its propulsive Jimmy McGriff sample, and Gang Starr’s seminal “Jazz Thing,” the mission statement by Guru and DJ Premier, both of whom made connecting jazz and hip-hop a career-long project. Late-’80s and early ’90s releases by the aforementioned groups as well as Stetsasonic, Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and Digable Planets helped cement jazz rap as a bona fide trend during that period, music whose creative sampling continues to introduce legions of rap fans to jazz today.

It’s a relationship that predates hip-hop entirely, since jazz’s more experimental contingents have included spoken-word and poetry elements in their music since the ’50s — a relationship deepened by artists like the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron in the ’60s and ’70s. And even after jazz rap’s heyday, the musics remained inextricably linked. The late J Dilla dramatically changed both jazz and hip-hop with his innovative, stripped-down grooves and samples; sonic architects like his frequent collaborator Madlib continued to argue that reinventing jazz classics is a pillar of hip-hop production.

Unsurprisingly, jazz rap continues today, albeit in ways that sound little like those early classics. The shockwaves of Dilla are still felt in the work of collectives like Soulection and albums like Blu & Exile’s underground classic Give Me My Flowers While I Can Still Smell Them and Robert Glasper’s Black Radio series, which brought hip-hop, R&B and jazz together on tape in nearly unprecedented fashion. Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly fueled the careers of affiliated jazzers Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington as much as it added a fresh dimension to Lamar’s own catalog, and inspired a renewed openness in hip-hop that incorporated improvised live music.

The five albums featured below show the myriad ways jazz sounds are currently percolating through hip-hop — from the ever-present sampling to varying combinations of live music, programmed beats and rapping. Together they prove that decades in, artists are still finding new means to articulate the deep roots connecting these two genres.

Mick Jenkins
Pieces of a Man (2018)

A tribute to Gil Scott-Heron’s 1971 LP of the same name, Pieces finds Jenkins channeling the poet’s groundbreaking experiments — especially on a few tracks recorded live alongside a band. The Chicago MC is one of a few young artists from the city finding new ways to incorporate jazz sounds into their work; his most popular single, still, is the vibe-synth-driven “Jazz” (whose “talkin’ all that jazz” refrain is a Stetsasonic callback). Here Jenkins’ introspective raps are backed by dreamy production in which original instrumentals replace sampling — jazz/hip-hop trio BADBADNOTGOOD, for example, is featured.

Room 25 (2018)

More than any other active rapper, Noname embodies the spirit of jazz — its improvisation, experimentation and innovation — even when she isn’t pursuing the sound of the genre. Both Room 25 and her remarkable mixtape Telefone are paens to what’s possible when poets and instrumentalists meet, with music and lyrics that blend seamlessly while skirting every jazz/hip-hop cliché. Somehow she still manages to draw out catchy hooks (see “Montego Bae”) from the lush, mild chaos she and executive producer Phoelix create on every track; the result is completely of a piece with the crossover music coming from jazz-bred artists like Robert Glasper, but somehow even more evocative and effortless.

Black Milk
Fever (2018)

It’s hard to find better jazz-rap credentials than getting your start by producing for early aughts powerhouses Slum Village — with that credit, Black Milk’s primary danger is the temptation to get mired in history. And while he’ll admit he attended the “school of Dilla,” the producer and MC keeps finding new ways into groovy vintage samples after all these years. Fever was made after Black Milk had spent a few years touring with a trio called Nat Turner (together they also put out an instrumental jazz-funk album called The Rebellion Sessions), and the album is built on the organic, experimental sounds they first developed onstage.

CARE FOR ME (2018)

Not every rapper is equipped to turn a feature into a career, but that’s more or less what Chicago’s Saba did with a spot on “Angels,” which appeared on Chance the Rapper’s 2016 smash Coloring Book. The rappers were longtime friends and collaborators, having grown up together in the Windy City’s uniquely intertwined hip-hop, jazz and R&B scenes; Chance’s mainstream crossover came alongside his jazz-inflected band, the Social Experiment. Saba took a considerably less pop approach on CARE FOR ME, his self-co-produced sophomore album — his band grooves on understated riffs that nevertheless have a distinctly jazz-indebted flair well suited to supporting his reflective rhymes.

Curren$y & Statik Selektah
Gran Turismo (2019)

This album probably wasn’t conceived as a jazz-oriented project, and not all of its songs feature a vintage or improvised flavor. But Statik Selektah, along with producers like Madlib and the Alchemist, belongs to the increasingly endangered population of beatmakers who frequently draw on jazz source material, and Curren$y’s weightless flow can frequently be found atop low-key jazz-driven backing. This recent collaboration is a great example of the kind of fluid, fresh sampling found in contemporary boom-bap, likely hip-hop’s most trend-resistant subgenre. It’s not a demanding listen, but it’s a rewarding one all the same, setting the kind of laidback mood listeners often look for in a jazz-inflected soundtrack.



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