How hip-hop producer Madlib helped Blue Note further the legacy of jazz

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

Founded by Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, Blue Note Records was the place to be for an aspiring jazz artist in the genre’s cultural peak in the 1950s and early ’60s. The prestigious label released some of the most important jazz records and put the spotlight on legends-to-be like Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Horace Silver and John Coltrane. This period of renaissance cemented Blue Note’s place as a touchstone of critical developments in jazz as an art form as they gave a platform to the forward-thinking artists who pushed the genre to new heights.

It’s no surprise that as time has passed, Blue Note’s imprint also touched on the emergence of hip hop. Through the art of sampling, Blue Note artists provided some of the sounds that characterized a new form of inner-city storytelling. The beatmakers and producers behind some of hip hop’s most defining tracks were often found thumbing through the label’s vast pool of records. If you found a Blue Note record to sample, there was a good chance you could strike gold.

One example of this can be seen in Ronnie Foster’s Mystic Brew, laden with silky guitar, organ and vibraphone riffs and grounded by the double bass.

This song would later be lifted onto one of A Tribe Called Quest’s most defining tunes, Electric Relaxation. You can hear the sample throughout, setting the music bed for the group to detail their dating experiences in the ’90s in each of their verses.

Enter Madlib, one of hip-hop’s most creative and enigmatic producers who’s known for sampling not only jazz but also progressive rock, soul, funk and a plethora of obscure music around the world. Also known as Otis Jackson Jr., he was connected to jazz at an early age through his parents, soul singers Otis Jackson, Sr., and Dora Sinesca Jackson, and through his uncle, jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis. His earliest hip-hop tracks were sourced from his father’s record collection.

Madlib rose to prominence in the late ’90s with his group Lootpack and their cult classic debut album, Soundpieces: Da Antidote. Following the group’s success, he went on to sign with the underground label Stones Throw, where he produced milestone hip-hop records such as The Unseen, published as his alter ego, Quasimoto, and collaborations with J Dilla on Jaylib and MF Doom on Madvilliany.

In 2002, Madlib got the rare chance to have access to all of Blue Note’s recordings to put together an album titled Shades of Blue. It was Madlib’s formal love letter to jazz, sampling and reinterpreting Blue Note music that left a mark on him, such as Donald Byrd’s Steppin’ Into Tomorrow. Madlib took these jazz tunes and dialled up the intensity with drum grooves sequenced seamlessly and dynamically with the sample.

He took things a step further by creating his own jazz group, the Yesterdays New Quintet, with a lineup of fictional characters all played by Madlib himself, reimagining tracks like Herbie Hancock’s Dolphin Dance and Horace Silver’s Peace.

With Madlib’s key intersection of jazz and hip-hop influence, Shades of Blue was a prime example of Blue Note’s embrace of hip hop. With it, the label furthered the cultural legacy of jazz and the countless iconic recordings that characterized not only the identity of the label but jazz as an ever-evolving art form.

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