Monday, November 06, 2006
The Death of Jazz-hop
There are some who espouse the following version of music history: In the early 90's, conscious, jazz-influenced hip-hop was destined to dominate the airwaves and the culture, until Dr Dre's Chronic album seduced the masses with it's g-funk tales of misogyny, drug use, and violence, thus hurling hip-hop into a gangsta-rap dark age from whence it has yet to emerge from.
There are a few things wrong with this theory: For one thing, jazzy hip hop was never that popular. The other thing is that gangsta rap was never unpopular.
Let's set the wayback machine to 1990 and check out what the kids of Aptos High were listening to. The heshers were still enjoying the last gasps of the hair bands - AC/DC was huge, Aerosmith was massive, and Metallica was the number-one stoner shirt of choice. The freaks were happy in their alterna-land, knowing that they would have an instant kinship with anyone who had heard of the Smiths, Joy Division, the Cure, or Fugazi.
The hip-hop fans would rush to the Santa Cruz flea market every Saturday to pick up bootleg tapes of their favorite artists. And who were they listening to? Tribe Called Quest? De La Soul? Brand Nubian? HELL NO. They were blasting Ice Cube, Ice T, NWA, 2 Live Crew, and any other artist who swore like a sailor. They'd fuck with PE, but only because Ice Cube was on a few of the tracks, and they made being conscious seem rebellious and angry.
As the decade slowly progressed and Nirvana forced all of LA to get a haircut and distortion pedal, were the hip-hop fans at Aptos High checking out the Low End Theory or Digable Planets or Guru? Hell no. And why the fuck would they have? Metallica, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, even the Red Hot Chili Peppers were all about being bummed, angry, and wanting to get laid. Why would you expect the hip-hoppers to be digging on jazz cats or getting into how the Tribe was using live instruments? "We got the Jazz?" "Smooth Like Butter"? Um, no. We are talking about teenage boys who are young, dumb, and full of conflicting emotions - do I beat someone up or beat off? Why fuck with boring-ass jazz shit when you've got Ice-T saying "That Bitch Tried to Kill Me"?
Let's put it another way - how many teenagers were/are into jazz? Um, like four, and they are all in the jazz band doing their best worst Coltrane to poor unsuspecting saxophones. So why are kids alla sudden gonna want lots of jazz in their hip-hop?
Let's put it yet another way - in 1991, two artists released iconic, seminal indie rock albums. One was My Bloody Valentine, whose "Loveless" is a masterpiece of swirling, abstract guitar goodness. It sold less than half a million copies, and made their label go bankrupt. The other was Nirvana's "Nevermind" which was equal parts punk, seventies rock, and contemporary teen angst. Not revolutionary, not terribly original, certainly not nearly as experimental and mind-blowing as "Loveless". It sold a bajillion records and even warranted a Weird "Al" parody. The point is, the masses love shit that is visceral, immediate, and easily digested. If they gotta think too much, they'll stay away. At Aptos High, the only other person I knew who was really into Tribe was Amy Santora, who, like me, was more of an indie kid. Everyone else was too busy rocking out to the Chronic.
And let's face it: The Chronic is a good fucking album, just as nevermind is a good fucking album. If you are a young kid looking to start making music, doing rhymes about capping fools and getting high over seventies funk seems like a hell of a lot more fun than busting out your thesaurus and Miles Davis albums and trying to play bohemian.
So the Chronic won out. Kids raised on Run DMC and License to Ill were not going to be suckered into becoming mellow, smacked-out jazz cats. They wanted something angry and banging, and that was about drugs they did. Let me ride, byaatch.
Jazz hip-hop went in several different directions. People took the mellow instrumental with a beat thing and created leagues of downtempo jazz-house records. St. Germaine, Tosca, basically anything that makes urban professionals want to sip cosmos, buy designer clothes, and make sweet love. Other artists took the jazz influence and turned it into something darker, ala Nas' first album, or Mobb Deep's "Infamous". Same upright bass riffs and jazzy beats, but with gritty rhymes about guns, drugs, and inner city life. Q-Tip was present on both albums, proving that the marriage of hip-hop and jazz wasn't just a one-trick pony.
Finally, there are a ton of artists out there who count "The Low-End Theory" as one of their favorite records of all time, and Tribe's mellow beats, clever word play, and conscious lyrics have lived on in a lot of acts, from underground artists like, well, most of the Stones Throw catalogue, to more mainstream artists like the Roots and Common.
So next time you hear someone lament the fall of jazz-hop and rise of gangsta rap, tell him to shut up and buy a Yesterday's New Quintet CD. Now allow myself to excuse myself while I go put on the Digable Planets. Remember to vote, because those fascists are some heavy dudes.
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