The convergence of jazz and hip-hop, from Louis Armstrong to Kendrick Lamar

A brief history of two genres that owe a lot to each other's success.
U .S. jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove performs on April 10, 2012, during the Jazz at Prague Castle concert at Prague Castle. (Michal Cizek)

Written by Scott Morin, saxophonist, Juno Award-winning producer and former head of Verve Records/Universal Jazz Canada

We're lucky to live in a time when musicians are no longer bound by genre or musical boxes.

The new guard of soulful, improvising artists on the scene today — musicians such as Kamasi Washington, Kendrick Lamar and Robert Glasper — freely fuse jazz and hip-hop in their sounds. This is an evolved place from earlier eras when a hip-hop artist would sample a jazz riff into the production, or a jazz musician would play with beats and a DJ scratching over a bebop head.

Beginning with Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan in the '20s, through the efforts of '60s and '70s pioneers like Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd and Quincy Jones, and into the golden age of hip-hop with trailblazers like a Tribe Called Quest and Guru (and later with M-Base members like Steve Coleman and Greg Osby), the line between hip-hop and jazz has been progressively blurred.

And now, jazz and hip-hop stand together, shoulder to shoulder.

Below: a timeline of key moments in the intersection of the two genres. 

1926: The first scat solo on record

DJ Kool Herc is widely credited as the originator of hip-hop, and the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" is recognized as the genre's first song. But the true influence for the concept of rap came from scat solos by jazz musicians. This can be traced back to the first scat solo on record, from Armstrong and his Hot Five in 1926.

The world owes a debt of gratitude to gravity for creating the opportunity that led to Armstrong's scat solo in "Heebie Jeebies:" The improvised vocal solo happened because Armstrong had dropped the sheet music for his trumpet melody.

1983: Jazz meets hip-hop on MTV

There were seminal moments in the history of instrumental jazz that became key influencers for future hip-hop generations. From Jones' classic "Soul Bossa Nova" through the recordings of Byrd in the '70s to Hancock's innovations, we have many examples of jazz recordings from this period that foreshadowed the eventual introduction of hip-hop music in the early '70s. This video was in heavy rotation on MTV in 1983, signifying a major culture shift in the two genres: an instrumental jazz song with hip-hop influences.

1990: Canada adds its 'boombastic' style to the mix

We sometimes forget that Canadians were influencing hip-hop in the early years of the genre in a deeply meaningful way. Main Source, the Shuffle Demons, Dream Warriors, Kid Koala and Maestro Fresh Wes are just a few of the Canadian innovators who influenced later generations of hip-hop artists.

For proof, look no further than "My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style" from Toronto's Dream Warriors. The song famously sampled "Soul Bossa Nova" and remains a memorable event in the history of jazz-influenced hip-hop.

1990-91: The Native Tongues use 'jazz' in their song titles

The Native Tongues, a collective from the late '80s and early '90s, helped steer hip-hop into an introspective, more socially conscious art form, heavily influenced by jazz samples and rhythm. The collective was formed in New York by the Jungle Brothers and a Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ), with origins in the Afrika Bambaataa-led Zulu Nation. These songs from ATCQ and Gang Starr represent a new development in the two genres, with both songs using the word "jazz" in their titles.

1993: Hip-hop hits its golden age

1988 to 1993 was a period of unparalleled artistic growth and realization of the hip-hop concept and culture — and some of the greatest recordings in the history of any music were made during those five years. Not only did classic albums by BDP, Public Enemy, De La Soul and Wu-Tang Clan drop during this golden age, but this span was also known for groundbreaking albums featuring the incorporation of jazz samples. The Digable Planets' single "Cool Like Dat" represents one of the first true incorporations of jazz instrumentation, walking bass lines and live horns into a hip-hop recording.

1995: The advent of M-base

Started by a number of musicians in Brooklyn in 1991, M-Base (short for macro-basic array of structured extemporization) is more a creative concept than a collective. The originators of this approach to improvisation were saxophonists Coleman and Osby, along with vocalist Cassandra Wilson, pianist Andy Milne and many other associated artists.

Their musical concepts continue to this day, influencing artists all over the world including Toronto's Rich Brown and countless others. Coleman and the Metrics' "Fast Lane" is a great example of improvising musicians collaborating with a prodigious, freestyling MC.

2000: Jazz incorporates hip-hop

Hip-hop artists were known to sample jazz riffs and melodies in their productions but jazz musicians hadn't followed suit. One of the innovators in this effort was Courtney Pine, a British saxophonist who incorporated soul, funk and hip-hop into his jazz recordings. On this live recording of the Gil Scott-Heron classic "Lady Day and John Coltrane," Pine flips the script by taking a spoken-word anthem and arranging it for a soulful jazz band, essentially adding hip-hop to the jazz band idiom.

2003: Roy Hargrove introduces his RH Factor

The evolution of hip-hop in jazz continued with the now-classic RH Factor album Hard Groove. Featuring contributions from Common, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo and Marc Cary, this album was the brainchild of trumpet genius Roy Hargrove, and featured hip-hop artists recording in the studio with a soul/jazz band in a way that hadn't been accomplished to date. There were later releases from RH Factor but Hard Groove stands out — and the freestyle track with rapper Common remains the highlight.

2015: Tyler, the Creator boosts BadBadNotGood

Toronto-based jazz/soul group BadBadNotGood, whose members started as students in the jazz program at Humber College, were originally known for jazz interpretations of hip-hop songs that they would post on social media, to huge attention. An early supporter (via Twitter) and an eventual collaborator, Tyler, the Creator helped launch BadBadNotGood's career with his huge fanbase, and since then, they've built their own worldwide following of enthusiasts. Check out their track with Wu-Tang Clan original member and solo artist Ghostface Killah.

2017: A confluence of styles

What began with two genres flirting with each other's sound has evolved into a confluence of styles. "We've now got a whole generation of jazz musicians who have been brought up with hip-hop," says saxophonist Kamasi Washington. "We've grown up alongside rappers and DJs, we've heard this music all our life. We are as fluent in J Dilla and Dr. Dre as we are in Mingus and Coltrane."


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