This is the first entry in a digital series called Lifted, in which Javon Anderson examines the long-standing relationship between jazz and hip hop.
Jazz has changed and influenced music all around the world for more than a century. And among the many genres of music inspired by jazz is one that’s more similar than some might think.
Originated in the Bronx, hip hop is deeply rooted in jazz. Thanks to the art of sampling — a pillar of the urban sound — hip-hop producers have constantly perused record store after record store, digging in search of their next great loop. When technology advanced to a point when hip hop producers and beatmakers could sample sounds for up to 10 seconds with the EMU SP 1200 sampler, it opened up a new canvas for expression. This led to the explosion of the “jazz-hop” movement in the late ’80s and early ’90s led by groundbreaking artists like A Tribe Called Quest, De la Soul, Nas and Queen Latifah, all of whom showed an appreciation for jazz through the samples they used for their songs. It was what many still call “the golden age of hip hop.”
Hip-hop producers gravitated to jazz because it offered a rich palette of sounds for them loop, chop, reverse and transpose into something compelling and familiar yet not quite the same. Jazz chord progressions and phrases could be looped and rearranged into entirely different sounds with a distinctive digital character.
Legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock has found himself intertwined in this exchange hundreds of times. With a storied career spanning several eras of jazz, Hancock has carved out a space for himself in all of them thanks to his ever-evolving playing and willingness to constantly reinvent himself.
Hancock is no stranger to hip hop, either. His Grammy-winning song Rockit was a staple among break-dancers and was one of the first crossovers between jazz and hip hop. His upcoming album — which has yet to be officially announced — reportedly features collaborations with hip-hop artists Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Common, Snoop Dogg and Terrace Martin.
In the late ’90s, Hancock’s music reached J Dilla, who would go on to become one of the most prolific producers in hip-hop. J Dilla was a master of sampling techniques who used them in ways that were far ahead of his time. He was well known for his work with A Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, Erykah Badu, Slum Village and his countless mixtapes and albums of instrumental beats.
In 2000, Slum Village released their second album Fantastic, Vol. 2. On the track Get Dis Money, J Dilla lifts the foundation of the beat from several seconds of Herbie Hancock’s descending vocoded crooning on 1978’s Come Running to Me.
J Dilla’s reinterpretation of the sample doesn’t fundamentally change the original composition, but what’s most interesting is what he manages to put on top of it. He adds swing-heavy programmed drums that give a distinct, humanized feel, and a digitized bassline that holds down the low-end groove. He then sequences that seven-bar loop, adding and taking away elements throughout the track to create dynamics and variation within the same loop, highlighting the vocal performances of the other members of Slum Village.
It took a while for Herbie Hancock to actually hear the song. Eventually, Flying Lotus and Thundercat realized he had never heard it before and played it back for him. Thundercat recounts that moment here.
This is just one of many ways jazz and hip hop have inspired and influenced each other — and continue to do so to this day.