Bouncing around on the jazz programmers' email discussion list of late has been a debate about the place of hip hop – more particularly DJs – in the world of jazz. This is one of those wonderful discussions about genre and style that jazz nerds become very passionate about. While everyone is entitled to an opinion, of course, not all opinions are equal – as knowledge of the topic at hand helps in the sense that one has “earned” that opinion. There are always going to be listeners – and even programmers – who don’t listen with big ears and an open mind, and we take their opinions for what they’re worth. For me, if we’re talking about hip hop and DJs, if you don’t know Kool Herc from Grand Mixer DXT from Jam Master Jay from Q-Bert from Cut Chemist, you might want to step to the front of the room and pay close attention.
Looking to the roots of jazz – the spiritual, the work song, the blues – and to jazz itself, one finds that the music developed in a space apart from, but also within, a white mainstream culture that had dispossessed blacks of most of their original materials for making music. In that dispossessed state, blacks made the best of what was around and combined that with what could be remembered of the old ways – and out of that dynamic came something new and original, popular musical forms that dominated the sounds of the 20th century.
Knowing the roots of hip hop – rhythm and blues’ roundabout voyage through the dance halls and sound systems of Jamaica, spoken word poetry from The Last Poets and others, and the synthesis found in the works of James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, and, above all, Gil Scott-Heron – knowing those roots is only part of the story. Like blues and jazz, hip-hop was forged in a space apart from, but also within, a not-so-white-as-before but still mainstream culture. Hip-hop comes from a particular time and particular places – the decaying urban environments of the late 60s and 70s. And while I have my own ideas about the causes for the struggles of city neighborhoods – the problem is systemic and not, in my view, to be blamed on the victims of the system – hip-hop does come from the city streets. Why are DJing and MCing always so closely linked to break dancing and graffiti – the so-called Four Pillars of Hip Hop? Because they all come from city neighborhoods. Those who don’t know these origins of the Four Pillars neglect the Fifth Pillar of Hip Hop – Knowledge.
With the incorporation of hip hop styles into the mainstream – for better and for worse – many people develop a distorted picture of the genre. The superficiality and unsophisticated nature of what is called hip hop in the mainstream reminds me of how elements of jazz were appropriated into the mainstream over the years – swing music, crooners of the Great American Songbook, and smooth jazz. I’m not saying that Frank Sinatra’s “The Lady is a Tramp” is bad, but it might not be jazz. And Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” might not be bad, either – but it also might not be hip hop. Not really. There’s nothing wrong with pop, everyone.
So what do the unversed need to know? The work of the DJ within hip hop is much more than what some might assume, that is, the DJ often does much more than spin records. The term turntablism (coined by DJ Babu) is more apt to describe the deep technical knowledge and significant skills needed to manipulate sound by touching and moving records, the stylus, and mixer. If you’ve actually had a chance to observe turntable artists at work in a live setting, you’ll likely come away understanding why it’s not a stretch to think of such artists as true musicians. They play the equipment, albeit in a very different manner than one might play the trumpet or piano.
To make an argument that two turntables, a mixer, and a crate of vinyl aren’t an instrument is too narrow. The degree to which turntablists manipulate recordings to make original sounds in original combinations in live performances is proof enough to me of the art. They are musicians. Are we going to say that only certain technologies produce “jazz sounds?” Instrumentation? If jazz can incorporate Rufus Harley’s bagpipes, Bela Fleck’s banjo, and a whole host of synthesizers and electronic enhancements, then why exclude the tools of the DJ?
A quick run through some recent documentaries might be useful for those still on the fence. Scratch is a good primer, as is Rob Swift’s As The Tables Turn. If you want to follow a group of MC’s who have a clear sense of craft and purpose, Michael Rappaport’s documentary of A Tribe Called Quest, Beats, Rhymes, and Life is excellent. And if you’d like a clearer idea of the technical skill required to DJ, you can read On The Record , or consider this old press release from Berklee College of Music.
Even if the best turntablists are musicians, the question remains as to whether they are jazz musicians. And we stumble upon the problem of defining jazz. If you make a strict historical definition of jazz, as, say, Stanley Crouch does in “The Negro Aesthetic of Jazz,” you find a music art that has “4/4 swing, blues, the romantic to meditative ballad, and Afro-Hispanic rhythm as core aesthetic elements” That excludes not only hip hop, but whole catalogs of musical styles that are often played on serious jazz stations.
But if we take a broader, postmodern definition of jazz, as even Crouch might in “Jazz Criticism and Its Effect on the Art Form,” we might consider that jazz contains the element of improvisation and, to use the phrase, “a sense of infinite plasticity.” As he puts it, “jazz is primarily a performance art that takes place in an ensemble context of collective improvisation.” Now, that’s a definition that works for me. Actually, they both work for me – the strictly historical and broad postmodern notions. Why can’t it be both?
I think, in many ways, the argument is ended on the musicians' side of things. The fact is that many jazz artists of DJs into their work – Herbie Hancock, Cassandra Wilson, Wallace Roney, Robert Glasper, Louis Durra, Medeski Martin & Wood, to name some high profile ones. And, of course, there are many DJs who effectively use jazz materials in their performances – yes, even live and improvised: DJ Logic, Rob Swift, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist. Not all turntable artists play jazz, but a broadly defined form of jazz is played by turntable artists. Check out Kid Koala here playing a trumpet solo for the crowd – and listen to the crowd respond.
Seems a lot like jazz to me. What do you think?
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