Jazz and Hip-Hop: Can They Really Mix?

Throughout the history of jazz, musicians have been inspired by developments in black popular music. Is the mixture of jazz and hip-hop one more positive example of this tendency at work? Or is it doomed to failure because these two performance styles have such incompatible elements, especially in the underlying pulse that animates the music? Jazz.com contributor Jared Pauley explores these matters and presents a mini-history of the courtship between jazz and hip-hop in this two-part article. T.G.


For well over a century now, jazz has been the chameleon of American music. It has incorporated elements from classical, Latin, world, funk and R&B. The very meaning of the word “jazz” suggests that in order for it to be such the music must swing, among other criteria. In some regards this could be true, but I would like to argue that jazz represents just a portion of the broader landscape of African-American music. The use of categories and names of styles is unavoidable, but I feel that at times the process of labeling music restricts us as musicians, writers and listeners from recognizing the connections between sub-genres of music.

Case in point are the connections between jazz and hip-hop. Culturally, socially, and musically the two share more in common than some would acknowledge. From the 1960s up to today, jazz and hip-hop continue to borrow and experiment with each other. They both contain elements of improvisation; in hip-hop, free styling and DJing represent this, while in jazz much of the exchange between musicians is improvised. The idea of a jazz tradition can make it difficult to categorize musical efforts between people like Branford Marsalis and DJ Premier. But why must the rigidities of the canon and tradition reject the musical offerings of the 1970s and beyond as questionable? To do this trivializes the entire legacy of how the word “jazz” came to mean what it does. It is my opinion that the experimentations between jazz and hip-hop represent just one of the examples that put this hypocrisy to test. Just because sound doesn’t conform to a certain standard doesn’t disqualify it from being called jazz.

Freedom Now Suite

In 1960, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln recorded We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. Though categorized as jazz, Lincoln’s vocals and Roach’s playing are by most standards not all that jazzy. This record dealt with issues facing black America. Lincoln’s and Roach”s performances achieved a feverish pitch that can still be felt when heard today. Their collective approach to dealing with subject matter in their art is no different than the efforts of Public Enemy in the late 1980s. Hip-hop acts clearly paid odes to people like this and (for example) John Coltrane, who also deeply explored spirituality in his music through works which dealt with similar subject matter.

In the mid-1960s, with the introduction of avant-garde, R&B and soul influences in jazz, the storied critic with his own definition of what defines jazz was put to the challenge. This period, including the crisscrossing patterns of jazz during the 1970s, helped spin the community into enough circles that it hasn’t recovered to this day. We are still debating whether to include or exclude certain musicians and recordings because they don’t live up to various expectations. Thus, as writers, people with supposed objectivity, we have failed in some ways to give jazz its proper respect and analysis. Excluding people has long been part of the jazz critical tradition, yet enough time has passed that the tradition is more indefinable and open than ever.

Last Poets

Hip-hop began to emerge in the late 1960s just as jazz was undergoing another transformation. The work of the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron represent the arguable seed of plantation for hip-hop music. The Last Poets’ 1970 self-titled album and their 1971 release This is Madness broadcasted poetry concerning civil rights, poverty and universal struggle over a single percussionist, Poets’ member Nilaja. Gil Scott-Heron’s albums were also well known and very influential. His 1971 album Pieces of a Man was a huge record in its day. The influence of his song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televise” on the emergence of hip-hop is undeniable. Whether coincidence or not, featured on the 3-day session were seasoned jazz bassist Ron Carter and jazz flutist Hubert Laws. This was one of the first widely heard recordings on which jazz artists and a spoken-word artist had met on vinyl.

By 1973, DJ Kool Herc, a naturalized Jamaican, was flooding the South Bronx, New York with his technique of putting breaks in records. This technique involved spinning the same two records at once and thus resulted in the DJ being able to manipulate the sound spectrum. Emerging from this came the vocal styling born in Jamaica called toasting. With toasting, the DJ rhymed in certain sequences, and eventually this technique gave birth to the modern emcee. With the emergence of the emcee, hip-hop was now a multi-defined culture with bold elements of improvisation, with DJing and emceeing at the forefront.

In 1983, Herbie Hancock along with producer Bill Laswell changed popular music with their single “Rockit” from Hancock’s album Future Shock. The single prominently featured DJ Grand Master D.ST on turntables. This marked one of the first times in which scratching had been used on a popular recording. And it is no coincidence that Hancock, the jazz chameleon himself, was involved in one of the first popular fusions of jazz and hip-hop. In the late 1980s, especially in New York City, African-American culture was a melting pot. Hip-hop’s first golden era was born in 1986, and many of its proprietors embraced jazz music, citing its influence from the use of vocal deliveries emulating horn rhythms to the actual samples themselves.

This blog entry posted by Jared Pauley. For part two of this article, click here.