Rap meets jazz -- Hip-hop groups such as Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, and rapper Neneh Cherry turn to jazz for inspiration

By Charles Aaron
Updated March 26, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

Hey yo
Dizzy Gillespie plays the sax
Me, myself, I love to max
— ”Funky for You,” Nice & Smooth, 1990

Whether misinformed or playful, this absurd tribute to the late jazz trumpeter was a useful reminder: At hip-hop’s best, nothing’s sacred, everything’s up for grabs. And recently, perhaps bored by one too many gangsta-leanin’ James Brown or P-Funk samples, hip-hop groups such as Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, and pop rapper Neneh Cherry have exuberantly turned to jazz for inspiration. With MTV giving heavy airplay to the Digable Planets’ ”Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” — in which the boho threesome fronts a jazz combo miming to an Art Blakey sample — the so-called hip-hop/bebop fusion is in full swing.

”I’ve always heard similarities in hip-hop and jazz, as far as rhythm goes,” says 22-year-old jazz trumpet star Roy Hargrove, who has recently recorded demos with rap artists. ”Hip-hop is so swinging you have to snap your fingers, just like with Miles Davis and Duke Ellington.”

Of course, hip-hop has appropriated jazz snippets since its start in the ’70s, but credit was rarely given. Emboldened by both legal ramifications (clearinghouses now monitor recordings for unauthorized samples) and a genuine love for jazz music and culture, Digable Planets and Gang Starr are working to fix that imbalance. Digable Planets’ Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) dutifully credits sampled artists from Blakey to Sonny Rollins and gives shout-outs to jazz legends like Charles Mingus and Max Roach.

Gang Starr, meanwhile, has moved past appropriation to collaboration. On the upcoming Jazzmatazz, which will be released May 18, MC Keith ”The Guru” Elam teams up in the studio with young jazz guns like saxists Branford Marsalis and Courtney Pine and guitarist Ronny Jordan. The results are pretty mixed, with Guru acting too much the solemn tour guide rather than the irreverent player. Contrived rather than kinetic, Jazzmatazz often comes off like streetwise dinner music.

More successful is jazz saxman Greg Osby’s 3-D Lifestyles. Due out on May 4, it is coproduced by Osby and others, including Eric ”Vietnam” Sadler of Public Enemy, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Like the best hip-hop, it sounds improvisational. ”The psychology of hip-hop guys is totally ‘Feel the vibe,’ and it’s hard to relay your intent to them,” says Osby. ”But that’s also why it works, because they don’t bring that lofty, brainiac attitude. They come in like, ‘It’s killin’; it’s slammin’.’ Just trying to improvise inside that sonic assault is really wild.”

While DJs won’t soon be replaced by jazz combos, the exchange can be invigorating for both genres, giving jazz a more fervent percussive groove and hip-hop a stronger sense of musicality. Jazz, whether sampled or live, brings to hip-hop the improvisational buzz that it had back in its bebop-inspired beginnings, before rote funk sampling took over in the late ’80s. DJ Smash Hunter, a.k.a. Jazz Not Jazz, refers to the hybrid as ”bridge music. That’s what I hope the ’90s will be about, people walking across that bridge to meet each other, regardless of differences or dichotomies.”