When hip meets hip hop

The word on the streets is tinged with jazz, reports Michael Odell

Michael Odell
Thursday 22 June 1995 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

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Sartorially they are still worlds apart. The hip hoppers, dressed for Olympic track and field, scuff around nodding to the beat. In their midst, outnumbered but not to be outdressed, the jazzers stalk in crumpled suits and, occasionally, faces.

At the launch party for Jazzmatazz 2, the sequel album to the first jazz/ rap experiment of two years ago, fans of both genres are star-spotting and passing the new songs over the critical lobes. In the disused Aldwych Underground station in central London hip hoppers warm to the rhythmic acrobatics of the album's main man, Gang Starr rapper Guru (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal). Meanwhile the jazz folk prick their ears in grateful recognition of Donald Byrd's every brassy toot. The two clans wouldn't be seen dead in each others clothes that's for sure, but they're here to reach a deal on music.

"Rap's rigid rhythmic structures are sometimes inimical to the improvisational spirit of jazz," said a man drawing deep thoughts from a small beard. "As long as the beats are slammin' I'll buy it," offered his new friend in baggy jeans, work boots and ski cap.

Recorded with a stellar r&b cast, names long since lurking in the "ready to delete" facility of your memory are revived here, DC Lee and Chaka Khan among them. In the three years since Jazzmatazz 1 Guru hasn't shaken hands with a being who isn't offering backing vocals or asking to bang a triangle. Recorded in LA, New York and London using 40 musicians, DJs and vocalists, it only needs a voiceover from Charlton Heston to qualify as a fully fledged epic. While Guru raps, vocalists, keyboard players and horn blowers vie for available space and his pronouncements run like a Waterloo station platform announcement through the hotch-potch of cross-fertilised sounds.

"He didn't have to rap on every track. It could be more subtle," grumbled a member of the rap group Definition of Sound.

"It's important for the young audience to hear jazz like this but I guess you could say our presence was more symbolic. We didn't have a hell of a lot to do," smiled Brand New Heavy Jan Kincaid.

The merits of the musical match are encapsulated neatly in the Marsalis household where the sibling muttering is that Branford shouldn't have unpacked his horn at all. Branford, once chided by brother Wynton for playing on an album with Sting, has now felt the slap of disapproval from another brother, Delfeayo, who has denounced rap's credentials as "a joke".

Undeterred, the young, adventuring Marsalis is present, tooting smartly on a track suitably entitled "Watch What You Say". Meanwhile veteran jazz man Donald Byrd has leapt to the defence of Branford and the jazz/ rap concept in general.

"Who is this Delfeayo guy?" blasted Byrd from New York. "These young kids think they know what jazz is. I recorded and lived with Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie and John Coltrane. They studied it from books! They should get out of their colleges and see what's going on on the street. These rappers are the voice of a generation like jazz was."

Even veterans who are not contributing to the project agree with Byrd. As the Jazzmatazz 2 launch party wound down, saxophonist Ronnie Laws was puffing out one last solo at Camden's Jazz Cafe. The 43-year-old was in London en route to the Montreux Jazz Festival. Hearing the new jazz/ rap set Laws' endorsement was unequivocal.

"It swings! I wish I was on it," he observed from his dressing room, " This is what jazz needs every decade or so: an infusion from the youth."

"It makes me happy to hear that. I have the maximum respect for Ronnie," said Guru. "Rap only exists because of what the older generation recorded.."

"Miles Davis was heading in the direction of using vocals and beats in his music," said Laws. "He would have loved this. Rap has been paying jazz compliments with its samples for a long time now. Guru's giving the old timers a chance to get in on the act properly."

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