The Jazz.com Blog
September 02, 2008 · 12 comments
A few days ago, jazz.com’s Jared Pauley championed the fraternization of jazz and hip-hop in this space (see part 1 and part 2 of his article). But not everyone is excited by a dose of hip-hop in their jazz. In particular, Alan Kurtz, our resident curmudgeon, confers a resounding Bronx cheer upon that borough's heaviest-hitting export since the New York Yankees. Below, Mr. Kurtz tries to take the hip out of Mr. Pauley’s hop. Who wins this debate? I will leave it up to you to decide. Readers are invited to add their own yeas or nays below or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. T.G.
"Opinions aside," commented my jazz.com colleague Jared Pauley, "maybe it's just a generational thing." We were discussing Us3's "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)," which Jared had lately reviewed, assigning it a score of 95—identical to the rating our editor-in-chief Ted Gioia gave Herbie Hancock's original "Cantaloupe Island." To me, there's no comparison. "Cantaloupe Island" (1964) is a classic. "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)" (1993) is a knockoff. (Ted Gioia, by the way, professes to like Us3's recombinant muskmelon. There's no accounting for taste.)
For those who haven't sampled it, "Cantaloop" is a rap ransacking of the Blue Note vaults grafting sound bites from defenseless jazz recordings onto a mechanistic drum track that "improves" Tony Williams's original measured groove by accelerating its tempo and eliminating all traces of rhythmic nuance. But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. First we are suckered in by the pipsqueak piping of Birdland's midget MC Pee Wee Marquette, introducing Art Blakey's A Night at Birdland Vol. 1 (1954). However, instead of allowing us to actually audit Mr. Blakey and his illustrious sidemen (including Clifford Brown and Horace Silver), Us3 pulls Pee Wee's puny plug and jump-cuts ahead 10 years, whence they invade "Cantaloupe Island" with the swashbuckling flair of Caribbean pirates scenting buried treasure. How right they were! In 1994, "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)" became a surprise crossover hit.
Partisans claim this raid brought jazz to millions of young ears that otherwise might never have heard it. The question is, though, what did they hear? Surely, apart from royalties, hip-hop rip-offs were not what jazz originators had in mind. Ever gone to a movie where folks behind you talk all the way through? Well, that's how motor-mouth rappers treat jazz, ruthlessly dismantling (with the emphasis on dis) its musical architecture and tirelessly talking trash over what's left. And in any event, hip hop stimulated little interest in jazz. To the contrary: as rappers won enormous fame and fortune, jazzers watched their music plummet in the charts to depths formerly occupied only by kazoo concertos and Lithuanian polkas.
Proponents of the hip-hop/jazz hybrid nevertheless hold that it's part of jazz tradition. Yet in doing so, they display a highly selective knowledge of said tradition. They cite, for instance, Gil Scott-Heron's work in the early '70s as pioneering jazz rap because his most famous rant, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (1970), was backed by bongos and congas—as if that automatically transforms raw street poetry into jazz. And in extolling this supposed landmark, they conveniently overlook their seer's nearsightedness. "In 1992," writes media scholar Todd Boyd of the L.A. riots following the acquittal of 4 cops charged with assault in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King, "the revolution was televised, and it proved quite entertaining at that." (Except, presumably, to the 53 people killed during the 6-day telethon, including 25 African Americans; or to white motorist Reginald Denny, beaten by blacks on live TV; or to citizens stuck with the tab for $1 billion in damages.)
In any case, jazz rap was hardly revolutionary. By the time Gil Scott-Heron came along, spoken-word artists had been reading to jazz for decades. His Royal Hipness, Lord Buckley, recorded with L.A. jazz musicians in 1951. A few years later, Langston Hughes laid down his Weary Blues, half with Red Allen's All Stars and half with the redoubtable Charles Mingus, for the Verve label in New York.
Meanwhile, Fantasy Records caught West Coast poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth declaiming live at The Cellar in San Francisco, accompanied by local jazzmen. Fellow beat poet Kenneth Patchen traveled up the coast to Vancouver, Canada, for a similar gig, and south to Hollywood for Kenneth Patchen Reads His Poetry with the Chamber Jazz Sextet. Not to be outdone, Chicago hosted Word Jazz by Ken Nordine and the Fred Katz Group (actually the Chico Hamilton Quintet incognito for contractual reasons). All this transpired during the short-lived Jazz & Poetry fad of 1957-1959.
Speaking of which, let us not forget (try as we might) the inimitable (though who'd want to?) Jack Kerouac, recording his Blues and Haikus with Al Cohn & Zoot Sims in New York during 1958.
Predictably, like rap years later, none of this poetic folderol had any lasting effect on jazz, nor did it win converts to the cause. Far from being innovative, jazz rap merely restages an experiment that fizzled the first time around and didn't deserve a second chance.
Moreover, the premise that hip hop belongs to the jazz tradition is especially suspect on musical grounds. Hip-hop belongs to a tradition, alright; but that would minstrelsy, not jazz. Its most assimilated stars—e.g., DMX, Ice Cube, Ice-T, LL Cool J, Mos Def, Queen Latifah, Snoop Dogg and Will Smith (aka Fresh Prince)—are more thespians than musicians. By and large, hip-hop practitioners don't sing, they rap. They don't play instruments, they mix and scratch. They don't compose, they compile samples. Indeed, just as bygone flowerings of artistic expression came to be known as the Renaissance and Romanticism, historians may someday dub our own era the Remix. In this age of electronic cut and paste, art is not created, it is re-created, stitched together from disused scraps like a latter-day Frankenstein monster. This may work for rappers, but to paraphrase Dr. Fronkensteen in Young Frankenstein, "Hip-hop tracks are Tinkertoys compared to jazz!"
If objectively applied, the musical benchmarks refined by generations of jazz creators would shame hip hop into abject embarrassment, even when performed by jazzmen of genuine stature. Listen, for example, to Miles Davis from 1955 through the mid-'60s. Then, if you can stomach it, check out "The Doo-Bop Song," his 1991 collaboration with producer Easy Mo Bee, where Miles sounds like the Herb Alpert of hip hop, noodling weak-lipped over and around aggrandizing raps from his toadies. "The Doo-Bop Song" is a long way from "Concierto de Aranjuez," albeit an easy journey because it's all downhill.
Frankly, the only way to wrap rap into the jazz tradition is to exempt it from the sophisticated criteria we routinely use to evaluate other styles. This is a form of blackmail. "We are tired of praying and marching and thinking and learning," rapped Gil Scott-Heron in 1970, distilling what would become the hip-hop ethos. "Brothers wanna start cutting and shooting and stealing and burning." But jazz, unlike hip hop, requires study and patience, not looting and pillaging.
And besides, why should jazz fans embrace insurgents who so flagrantly dis the music we love? Even when rappers try to give jazz its props, their tributes are a travesty, such as Gang Starr's "Jazz Music" (1989). Over the drudging monotony of DJ Premier's synthetic beat, MC Guru spiels a cartoonish history of jazz from its jungle origins to Dizzy-Bird-&-Miles. This tired tale was told to better effect in 1954, when Langston Hughes narrated The Story of Jazz for the Folkways label. Of course Hughes had the advantage of reading to vintage discs by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Dizzy Gillespie.
MC Guru, by contrast, is backed by DJ Premier's canned snippets of an out-of-tune piano and what may be the four most sour notes ever afflicted on an alto sax—which four notes are periodically recycled with a sadistic lack of mercy. Oh, and did I mention the fellow grunting throughout? Straining at the stools, apparently. Although what that has to do with jazz history is beyond me. Most galling about this mockery is Guru's self-congratulatory smugness. "They gave it to us," he says of jazz's progenitors. "That's why we give it to you." This Boston-born rapper of Trinidadian descent, then all of 23 years old, gives it to us? Whoa, thanks very much. I always wondered who gave us jazz.
Oh, what the hell. Perhaps my colleague Jared Pauley is right. Maybe it is a generational thing. Youth naturally craves phat beats around which to choreograph their primal mating rituals. Hip hop satiates that demand. Why shouldn't jazz get in on the phun? No doubt the sooner old fogies like me stop holding out for artistic excellence and a cultural acumen beyond the violence and vulgarity of urban free-fire zones, the faster jazz will shed its pesky identity and be grated, ground and scrunched like sausage à la hip hop for mindless mass consumption into the Grand Def-ecation of American Musick. But, as Dizzy-Bird-&-Miles are my witnesses, I pray that never happens.
This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.