Guru’s Jazzmatazz brought hip hop and jazz closer together than ever

In Lifted, Javon Anderson examines the long-standing relationship between jazz and hip hop.

The connection between jazz and hip hop is often thought to be a one-way street: producers digging through crates, sampling jazz recordings and building loops for rappers to lay down their rhymes. One rapper by the name of Keith Edward Elam, also known as Guru, truly understood the powerful connection between the two genres.

Guru was best known for being half of the rapper-producer duo Gang Starr, offering clever, battle-ready lyrics with smooth delivery. Alongside DJ Premier, they made some of the smoothest yet hardest-hitting East Coast rap of the 1990s. However, Guru’s solo career really showcased his longstanding love of both hip hop and jazz and his ambition to closely fuse the two genres in a cohesive way.

Growing up in Boston in the ’70s, a young Elam was introduced to jazz through his godfather. “[He] would take me and my whole posse and sit us down in front of these big speakers and make us listen to jazz,” he said in Bill Adler’s liner notes to his debut solo album. In the ’80s, Guru would find his place in Brooklyn, immersing himself in the emerging culture of hip hop and beginning his music career by founding Gang Starr. The group’s music throughout their career was riddled with samples of jazz music, such as the song Mass Appeal, which makes a full song out of just three seconds of a Rhodes phrase on Vic Juris’s Horizon Drive.

Following his success with Gang Starr, Guru set his sights on his solo debut album. However, he didn’t totally stick to the sound that gained him his following. Instead, he experimented even further with jazz — the result was Jazzmatazz Vol.1.

Guru was aware of the risks he was taking and found himself caught between opposing critics. On one hand, there was the criticism from some jazz purists who already didn’t like rap and ultimately thought it was unthinkable to fuse the two genres. On the other hand, there was the pressure to remain faithful to his existing audience in the hip-hop world.

“I was leery. It had to be done right,” he said in the liner notes of the album. “My main concern was to maintain my street credibility and to represent the hardcore rap crowd because they’ve got me to where I am now.”

Staying true to his vision, Guru would not only bring jazz and hip hop closer together in inspiration, but also in collaboration. He assembled a supergroup of jazz musicians such as Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers, Lonnie Liston Smith and Branford Marsalis, recording tracks highlighting each of their musicianship. Rappers and vocalists also joined the lineup to help bring it all together. These collaborations went through the same process: Guru would lay down the main rhythm of drums, then he’d bring in jazz musicians to play on it, and then he’d write rhymes and fit everything together as executive producer. Here’s an example of one of these experiments with the legendary Donald Byrd.

“Doin’ the tracks with the older guys was like doin’ a track with my father: They accepted me and I accepted them,” he told Adler.

Guru found the experience of recording Jazzmatazz Vol. 1 to be “a very spiritual thing,” capturing the essence of the jazz to which he was exposed by his elders while also staying true to the culture of hip-hop.

The album was released in 1993 to critical acclaim. It was followed by three more volumes that spanned into Guru’s later years. The impact that Guru had made with Jazzmatazz Vol. 1 is enduring, continuing to strengthen the roots shared by jazz and hip hop.

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