An Introduction to Jazz Rap

Rapper C.L. Smooth and producer Pete Rock

“You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop / My old man said it reminded him of bebop” is how A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, an undisputed jazz rap classic, kicks off. Through that record, and many others in the same period, a strong case is made for the connectivity between hip hop and jazz. Many performers and producers in the jazz rap scene through its boom during the late 1980s-mid 1990s either grew up listening extensively to jazz records, or were accomplished jazz musicians themselves. During its peak, jazz and hip hop even collaborated directly, with Gang Starr’s Guru fronting a side-project named Jazzmatazz that featured recognised musicians such as Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd and Lonnie Liston Smith. Other groups, such as Digable Planets and The Roots, went a step further and dedicated entire albums to the jazz rap style without the use of samples, preferring to construct beats organically.

The extensive use of sampling in hip hop went largely unnoticed through most of the 1980s, but by the 1990s copyright laws were adapted, making the sampling of recognised numbers (anything by James Brown, for example) much more difficult, forcing producers to hunt for unknown, obscure tracks that could be altered or manipulated in order to mask their origin. This led to the term “crate-diggers” being coined for producers who would spend hours trawling through record bins looking for anything to use that was both rare and usable. As a result, producers that worked on the more renowned jazz rap releases were more or less forced to be innovative and meticulous. One of the great producers of this period, Pete Rock (a jazz aficionado and enthusiast), was in particular a rigorous crate-digger and an incredibly sought-after producer, crafting some of the finest beats in hip hop history.

Of all of hip hop’s offshoots, jazz rap is undoubtedly the coolest, and by far the most accessible to get into. The beats are often immersive and well-produced, the rapping is eloquent and lyrical, and a fair amount of the albums recorded during the jazz rap era consistently rank among hip hop’s finest achievements, and for good reason. The remainder of this post is merely to serve as a taster for jazz rap, and is by no means a definitive list – it’s simply what I would consider to be a suitable introduction to the genre, and I encourage anyone unfamiliar with these groups to dedicate some time checking out the albums I have listed in brackets next to the tracks.

A Tribe Called Quest – “Jazz (We’ve Got)” (from The Low End Theory, 1991)
Jazz samples featured:  “Green Dolphin Street” by Lucky Thompson’s quartet

Digable Planets – “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” (from Reachin’, 1993)

Jazz samples featured: “Stretchin’” by Art Blakey and The Messengers

Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth – “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” (from Return of the Mecca, 1992)

Jazz samples featured: “Today” and “Deliver Me” by Tom Scott

Organized Konfusion – “The Extinction Agenda” (from Stress: The Extinction Agenda, 1994)

Jazz samples featured: “Rain Dance” by Herbie Hancock, “Moon Germs” by Joe Farrell

The Pharcyde – “Otha Fish” (from Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde, 1992)

Jazz samples featured: “Today” by Herbie Mann

Gang Starr – “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” (from Step in the Arena, 1991)
Jazz samples featured: “Parrty” by Maceo Parker

De La Soul – “Patti Dooke” (from Buhloone Mind State, 1993)
Jazz samples featured: “People Make the World Go Round” by Milt Jackson


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