The One Where a White Guy Talks About Hip Hop and Jazz

This week, because I enjoy being both efficient and lazy, a large portion of this blog post is going to be the abstract to my master’s thesis. My thesis is due next fall so the final abstract will surely look a bit different than what you are about to see here. This is simply a preliminary abstract that I have to submit tomorrow to the honorable Dr. Dave Schroeder (director of jazz studies at NYU) so he can make sure that i’m not going to do anything terribly misguided or unrelated to jazz in my research. Unfortunately I fear I may be doing something terribly misguided and unrelated to jazz. You be the judge…

“Back in the days when i was a teenager,

before i had status and before i had a pager,

you could find the Abstract listening to hip hop.

My pops used to say, it reminded him of bebop”

-Q-Tip (Excursions)

The purpose of this research is to examine the connection between hip hop and jazz. Certainly there have been a number of jazz artists to utilize hip hop beats in their songs (notably Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and Branford Marsalis), as well as a number of hip-hop artists to utilize jazz samples in their songs (notably A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, and De La Soul). Yet the connection between jazz and hip hop is deeper than mere examples of cross-pollination. Herbie Hancock himself has acknowledged the relationship between beboppers composing new melodies over Tin Pan Alley chord changes and hip hop MCs composing new lyrics over funk grooves from the ‘60s and ‘70s, while the journalist Harry Allen proclaimed outright that “hip hop is the new jazz” (Tate, 388).

There are many similarities between jazz and hip hop. Both hip hop and jazz were created and developed by working class African Americans. Each genre served, and often still serves, as dance music (although jazz has in many cases evolved beyond a danceable rhythm, it is interesting to note that Dizzy Gillespie said in his autobiography: “Jazz was invented for people to dance. So when you play jazz and don’t feel like dancing or moving your feet, you’re getting away from the idea of the music”). Jazz and hip hop also share musical priorities such as an “obsession with syncopation and timbral exaggeration” (Tate, 388).

The above are just a few general connections between hip hop and jazz. Yet during the course of this research, I will attempt to discern the exact degree to which hip hop is jazz. I will do this by comparing and contrasting each genre’s creation, and social function, and aesthetic trends. Finally, I will do rhythmic transcriptions and formal musical analysis of verses by notable rap artists in an attempt to discover the musical similarities between dexterous rappers and jazz virtuosos.

What’s up nerds! It’s me Lucas, back from formal research writing land and back in the cozy casual world of blog writing. Seriously, anything goes here! Watch.

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See!

Ok, anyway let me soften the blow of my previous accusation. I don’t think that my research will be misguided or unrelated to jazz. I see clear social and aesthetic connections between jazz and hip hop. Yet I do realize that there is potentially a big problem with me exploring this topic: I’m white. Yes, I’m white. I don’t know if you all realized this from the fact that I look, sound, and act really white, but it’s true, I am white. And yet a foundation of this research is the fact that both hip hop and jazz were created by poor and working class African-Americans. I obviously have no idea what it is like to be black or tan. I’ve never known anything other than easy living on Caucasian lane.

If I were to at all try to explain the subjective experience of the creators of jazz and hip hop, I would be speaking about something I know nothing about. Sure, I have black friends, yes I play jazz and hip hop— this gives me the authority to talk about the African American experience right? Nope. Not even a little bit. White musicologists have a rich history of overstepping the domain of their knowledge and experience when analyzing African American music. Early 20th century accounts of blues, jazz, and African American folk songs are full of simplistic and racist portrayals of black people. I hope to avoid this trend at all costs.

Luckily, my research is redeemed by the fact that this is formal academic writing (i.e. the most boring, soulless, lame-ass writing in all the land). In this paper, there will be no room for subjective commentary, simply objective description. I’ve chosen to write about the connection between jazz and hip hop not because either is part of my cultural tradition, but simply because I really love to listen to and play both. And if you have to write a long-ass boring research paper, it might as well be about something you love right?

Heart, Brain, Butt

In the immortal words of Q-Tip, “Question: what is it that everybody has, and some pirates and thieves try to take? … Da Booty.” The booty is a natural place to start if we want to talk about music, because one basic function of music is to make you move your ass. It’s liberating to shake your ass after all. Go ahead and try. No one is watching (and if they are, even better). Stand up and shake your butt right now.

Few of you did. I understand, it’s a little embarrassing if people are watching, and if there’s no music playing then you’d probably feel a little bit crazy. It’s much more natural to shake your groove thing if you have a funky beat on hand— for me it even feels unnatural to stay stationary if there is an infectious groove within earshot. This is indeed one great power of music. It compels us to do something incredibly enjoyable that in silence feels awkward and forced. If you haven’t yet let music move your backside, I implore you, the next time you’re alone, put on some James Brown and shake that thing. You’ll be a better person afterwards.

I love music that makes me want to physically move, and a lot of music is written solely for that purpose. Most dance songs (whether disco, funk, electronic, or anything else) are basically telling us to turn off our brains and turn on our butts (the body’s natural center of dance). Yet in studying Jazz here at NYU, I’ve basically had to park my butt in a chair and turn on my brain. For at this point, the only way I can fathom something like playing an altered dominant scale in a 5/4 time signature is to think about it. I’ve got to use my brain for something like that because if I asked my butt how to do it she would just say “man, why not just play in 4/4? That way you can clap on beats two and four! And a what scale? Just play a C chord for a while and then maybe go to that A minor chord… come on it’ll be fun!”

Jazz, more than most other genres, has offered a haven for people who wish to take a cerebral approach to music. I’m not ready to say that this is the only way to approach Jazz, but the very fact that you can get a PhD in jazz studies indicates that there is great intellectual depth to the music, and that using your brain to wrestle with that depth is a worthwhile endeavor for the student of jazz. “Wrestling” is indeed a good way to describe my interaction with the music at the moment. For the past month I’ve been consistently exposed to some of the best musicians I’ve ever heard, making me realize more than ever how little I know. It is a challenge, but I know that the only way that I can begin to climb the ever growing mountain of musical knowledge that I see before me is to use my head. My butt is not going to get me up that mountain— instead I have to use my brain to do the hard work of analyzing tunes, memorizing melodies, experimenting with new harmonies, perfecting difficult rhythms, and much more.

Yet between the brain and the butt, there is another part of the body that has something important to say about music: the heart. The philosopher Herbert Spencer once said that “music is the language of emotion,” and lately I’ve been directly interacting with this idea in my film scoring class. Certainly there are many functions of music in film— in class we came up with a list of about 25— but one of the most basic functions is to convey the emotional tone of the moment in order to make the story being told much more vivid. What, for instance, is the movie The Graduate (one of my all time favorite films) without the brooding sense of aimlessness evoked by Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence?— probably still a good movie, but not the memorable masterpiece we know it to be.Great film music tells the story alongside the action onscreen, pinpointing the mood of the scene and communicating it directly to the heart of the viewer. Thus, learning (or struggling might be more accurate)to write film music has been for me a lesson in understanding music’s emotional power.

Last Saturday I went to Smalls Jazz Club (it is indeed, very small) to see the group Jean Michel Pilc and Total Madness (Pilc on piano, Ari Hoenig on drums, Joel Frahm on Tenor Sax, Chet Doxas also on Tenor, and Francois Moutin on bass), and I don’t think I have ever seen a group so expertly capable of expressing music in the three ways that I’ve mentioned above. Throughout the night they were intellectually stimulating, combining advanced harmonies with rare time signatures at blistering speeds. They were also incredibly emotive in their playing— you could feel the emotional weight of their notes instead of abstractly admiring the fact that they were playing them. And perhaps most remarkably, they sometimes made you want to dance— despite the fact that they were often playing in time signatures that my brain could not immediately follow, they played with such rhythmic accuracy and a sense of the groove that if I were a braver and slightly more obnoxious man, I would have busted a move in that tiny jazz club.

Not every musician will reach the height of Jean Michel Pilc and total madness. It is a fine achievement to just write really good dance music, or intellectually challenging music, or emotionally expressive music. But know that music does not serve a single master. Music is a multiplicity that can speak to your brain, your heart, or your butt, and I aspire to let it speak to all of me.