Words by Seve Chambers
It can be frustrating when Hip-Hop is misunderstood, and even more so when parts of it are simplified to sell an idea. One such example was pointed out recently when 9th Wonder tweeted something which caught my attention. The Grammy Award winning producer was surfing AllMusic.com and came across their subgenre breakdown for Hip-Hop, and from it he posted a picture of what they labeled as ‘jazz-rap.’
They had some of the artists usually pegged into this such as A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Guru, and Digable Planets. But then they included Brand Nubian and Pete Rock & CL Smooth as well. I do not know how they figure this stuff out, but simply put they were way off the mark. The way this label draws a connection between artists is horrible, and really exposes how dumb it can be and why it should not be used. Artists have shunned the term since forever, and it fails to describe the complexity of what was happening when these rappers broke out.
When groups like Gang Starr were pigeonholed as the rap artists with an affinity for jazz, they hated it. “Why would we wanna be called jazz rap,” DJ Premier said in a 1994 Vibe story, which was subtitled ‘Not Just A Jazz Thing.’ Gang Starr was sampling jazz largely because most hip-hop artists were using James Brown and funk samples in the ’80s, so they wanted to do something different. By ‘93 when jazz samples became the trend and discussions about crossing over dominated the state of the music, Gang Starr wanted to remain unique and decided to go in another direction. The radical change in production style between albums Daily Operation and Hard To Earn was driven by them trying to shake off the ‘jazz-rap’ label. “Being that Guru was getting aggravated with us being labeled [jazz-rap], I said, ‘I’m gonna strip this album down,’ just to show that I can use things other than jazz samples,” Premier stated in NahRight’s story on the 20th anniversary of Hard To Earn. They wanted to separate themselves from a highbrow image that did not represent them.
Many rappers in that era were rhyming over beats with jazz samples or that came off as jazzy sounding. That does not mean their music was necessarily a fusion of the two; groups like Brand Nubian and Pete Rock & CL Smooth cannot easily be pegged into a label like jazz-rap as they sampled a variety of genres for their songs. Some descriptions of jazz-rap include ridiculous assertions like ‘rhyming about Afrocentric topics,’ suggesting that many rappers were hotep bohemians and blindly overlooks how most hip-hop of that time was commentary in some form or another. Hip-Hop with jazz mixed in was mainly the sound of a moment, and to call it an actual style is inaccurate. That’s not to say it was just a trend, for most rappers understood the connection between hip-hop, jazz, and black American culture. But it was not like rappers got together at the Blue Note and said they wanted to make music for an elevator ride.
Really though, the main reason why these sub-genres are ridiculous is because they are not really used within hip-hop itself. The term jazz-rap is rarely used to describe A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, Dream Warriors and such by fans or people within the culture. Some discussions will hit upon how they lean towards jazz samples and influences, but a term as narrow as that is not often mentioned. The Roots have long since moved away from their early ‘jazzy’ style. Are they still considered a jazz-rap group then? Hell, some of the hardest groups like Black Moon were mining jazz samples, but they are not called jazz-rap. The last thing I think when listening to “Who Got Da Props” is sipping wine on the Upper West Side with someone who can afford a Picasso painting. (That was not a shot at Jay, for the record.)
When Hip-Hop is categorized by people within the music it is usually by generations or regions. Sometimes terms like ‘real,’ ‘mainstream,’ ‘gangster’ and ‘conscious’ are used, but they are not definitive subgenres or specific rap styles. These terms are ones that would have been utilized, not something like jazz-rap. That term is largely used by critics and musicologists, a lot of whom write for a non-rap audience. Not only is it insulting to assume that one understands the music better than its creators, but it is similar to the arrogance of cultural appropriation. (You know, that thing Amandla Stenberg broke down in detail recently.) These people who usually lack a firm understanding of the dynamics in Hip-Hop try to reconstruct it to fit their viewpoints. In doing so they end up disregarding their objective, which is to understand the music, in favor of making it fit their perspective. The result is they often ignore when artists object to being labelled with such a category. “We always wanted to be considered a hip-hop band rather than jazz-rap,” said Questlove in a 1996 interview with CMJ New Music Monthly.
When Kendrick Lamar dropped To Pimp A Butterfly last month I was afraid some professor working on a dissertation would fire up their typewriter and write about the return of jazz-rap. Thankfully that disaster seems to have been averted, although I have seen some reviews and essays that made me wince. While Kendrick probably drew inspiration from the likes of Tribe and The Roots, it is not a revival or an imitation of that era. What he did was different from what Gang Starr did, which was different from what Digable Planets did. Kendrick’s album was in many ways a panorama of the modern black experience, and it tapped into the jazz branch of the tree of black music to tell a story of the 21st century. It has been largely agreed that his album is critic-proof, something a lot of the artists mentioned before would have loved for their music. It’s a shame a catchy term is how some will think of their music, sabotaging the nuances of their art and ideas.