15 Brilliant Uses of Jazz In Hip-Hop
Make no mistake, these two genres have produced masters on par with anything stuffy old Bach or Mozart or Franz Liszt ever did. Composing is an art, and jazz and hip-hop have borrowed techniques from each other for decades. We're going to highlight some of that cross-pollinating here. And for any white people reading still skeptical about swapping Beethoven for ODB, just remember that hip-hop makes your cheese taste better.
We open the only way a list like this can, with the opener/title track from Common's Be. Listen to that upright bass groove! By the time the synth kicks in with the melody, you should be in a good mood.
Robert Glasper's Whole Deal
Pianist Robert Glasper comes up a lot when people talk about jazz/hip-hop crossover artists. Here he is explaining how sampling jazz and hip-hop have been intertwined from the start, calling both genres music “born out of oppression, they're both kinda like protest music, you know, going against the grain.” His piano will often clip or cut off unexpectedly, or he'll move phrases around different ways each time he plays them—the way a sample would get chopped up in a hip-hop track. He's a true genre-crossing artist. Check out 2005's Canvas for a relatively straightforward jazz album, or 2016's Everything's Beautiful for a remixed, boom bap-inspired conversation with Miles Davis's work.
The Roots: “You Got Me (feat. Erykah Badu and Eve)”
Speaking of Miles Davis, the atmospheric acoustic guitar and harmonic minor keys on this track remind us of Miles Davis's Sketches Of Spain or the moody opening of Chick Corea's “Spain." Using jazz in hip-hop doesn't have to be direct samples, it be “invoking musical lineage,” too. Black Thought's flow is aggressive and forceful until Badu's soulful hook mellows the tension—a sort of back-and-forth common in Spanish classical music and the jazz inspired by it.
Miles Davis: Doo Bop
Really speaking of Miles Davis (one tends to do that when talking about jazz), dude was trying to make hip hop at the end of his career! Miles never stopped experimenting, never stopped trying to push the limits of what he could do with a trumpet. 1992's Doo Bop, unfinished at the time of his death, is a fascinating look at what could have been if Miles had stayed alive a little longer or hip-hop had been born a little earlier. Compare to 1959's Kind of Blue, as quintessentially “jazz” as an album could possibly be, and have your brain bent by Miles's artistic range.
Erykah Badu (feat. André 3000): Hello
Jazz has a wonderful tradition of heartwarming duets, most famous being Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald's “What A Wonderful World” or Miles Davis's piano-and-trumpet interplay on “My Funny Valentine.” On this track—the closest humanity has ever come to recording the feeling of committing to love—Three Stacks' and Badu's soulful harmony hits the heights normally reserved for legends like Fitzgerald and Armstrong.
Outkast: “My Favorite Things”
Speaking of Mr. André Benjamin, his remix of Rogers and Hammerstein's “My Favorite Things” recalls John Coltrane's soprano sax version, albeit with twitchy, pounding electronic drums. Really shows the range of what's possible when these two genres borrow from one another.
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment: Surf
Its release sandwiched between Chance The Rapper's acclaimed Acid Rap and Coloring Book, Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment's Surf is a mix of instrumentals like “Something Came To Me” and straight-up radio hits like “Sunday Candy.” Donnie's reverby, delayed trumpet recalls some of Miles's work in the 70s, and the Social Experiment is a tight band on their own—often opening Chance the Rapper shows.
El-P From Run The Jewels Made a Jazz Album
Best known as one half of the earth-shattering Run The Jewels, El-P is a True Artist of a producer, making the majority of RTJ tracks as well scoring actual films, like the kind they show in theaters and everything. Well, in 2004, he made a whole-ass jazz album with The Blue Series Continuum, High Water. There's no rapping here, just a straight-up jazz, but you can hear rap influence in the production. Listen to the end for an inspiring talk from El-P about being a part of an artistic lineage.
Kendrick Lamar: “For Free? Interlude”
Speaking of straight-up jazz, this might be one of the best examples of it paired with rapping we can find. Kendrick worked heavily with jazz bassist Thundercat on To Pimp a Butterfly, and it really shows here. Don't listen to this track around your boss or kids, but God, it rules.
Kendrick Lamar: “Untitled 2 (Live)”
Winning a Pulitzer Prize gets you back-to-back appearances on this list. Kendrick's live performance of what was then called “Untitled 2” with the Roots backing him is a lyrical and music experience to behold. What happens when you pair the greatest rapper in the world with one of tightest, most versatile backing bands imaginable? Might as well tongue-kiss God after hearing that track.
Nas feat. AZ: “Life's a Bitch”
Fun fact: Nas's dad is a cornet player! Olu Dara provides the minute-long cornet solo on his son's “Life's a Bitch,” a musical moment that is such a blissful delight that you forget, for a moment, that life's a bitch.
Wu-Tang Clan: “Wu Tang: 7th Chamber”
Some of hip-hop's most creative weirdos sample from a creative weirdo period of jazz, using Lonnie Smith's "Spinning Wheel" to fuel the dissonant “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber.” Wu-Tang's improvisational tendencies within a set structure—i.e., Ol' Dirty Bastard losing his mind on the mic while RZA keeps the production tight—is not dissimilar to the “Head-Solo-Head” structure a lot of jazz songs take.
A Tribe Called Quest: “Lyrics To Go”
James Brown guitar riff and a Fender Rhodes piano loop from Minnie Riperton? Sign us up! “Lyrics To Go” blends the two together wonderfully. A delightful listening experience is mashing the Minnie track with the Tribe track back-to-back.
De La Soul: “Stakes Is High”
The sheer audacity to keep this Ahmad Jamal sample going throughout the track is awesome. Most of the lyrics are isolated over the pounding beat, with the dissonant piano chords shrieking in and tidal wave-shifting into the next musical phrase. It's bare bones production interrupted by THE MOST piano, nicely pairing with the urgent lyrics.
DOMi & JD BECK (feat. Anderson .Paak, Busta Rhymes, and Snoop Dogg): "PiLOT"
We end with something new: 2022 Blue Note Records breakouts DOMi & JD BECK sure can tickle some ivories and get your toe tappin'. Their debut album, NOT TiGHT, is a mostly-instrumental jazz album, with some hip-hop features thrown in to prove the new guys can run with the big dogs. “PiLOT” brings in heavy hitters Anderson .Paak, Busta Rhymes, and Snoop Dogg, and leaves us excited for more from the drum-and-keys duo.