hip hop



Wow, this is a heavy throwback. I have been compulsively nodding my head to this classic hip hop album from the 1990s, wondering how in the world I missed this gem back then. Stripped down to rap vocals, bass, drums and an eclectic range of samples seamlessly fused into the mix, this album is probably as close as a jazz album as hip hop can get. In fact, jazz is overtly referenced and utilized in many ways. First of all, consider the presence of the upright bass, which graces the songs with thumping warmth and power right from the opener “Excursions”. From the start, you know you’re not exactly on conventional rap territory. The bass line here, in all its glorious simplicity, is actually, well… not that simple. Once I had it figured out on my upright, I decided the time signature was a weird kind of 4/4 (5/4 + 3/4), and left it at that.

Released in 1991, Low End Theory is an important document of a decade that saw rap come into prominence and blaze its way into mainstream culture. In that way, I’m stunned that its agenda seems so far removed from the nascent gangsta rap of the time. If there is any message here, it has to do with the aspiration for honesty and soul-searching, as on songs like “rap promoter” or “butter”. Sure, rapper Phife Dawg expresses black male frustration with “good girls (that) are hard to find” but also his desire to see them embrace their natural looks and not tinker with their appearances: “If your hair and eyes were real, I wouldn’t have dissed ya, but since it was bought I had to dismiss ya”.

Though not as aggressively political as say Public Enemy in the late 80s/early 90s, the band can be credited with compelling takes on a variety of important issues, including the very business they were getting gradually involved in: Show Business, track 6.

Filled with memorable grooves, there isn’t a weak point on an album that addresses social and personal issues with cutting rhymes and tight beats. “The infamous date rape” is a gritty statement on a subject rarely tackled in any genre.

The way the rappers trade lines and pick up their flow after the breaks brings to mind the very jazz practice of trading fourths or, more generally that of interactive improvisation. Even the samples, largely borrowed from jazz and funk, act like timely punctuation marks.

Rarely has the lineage of jazz been so clearly celebrated on a non-jazz record. On “Jazz (we’ve got)”, the standard On Green Dolphin Street serves as the chorus for the rapping verses. The band even invited jazz bassist Ron Carter to lend his funky voice on “Verses from the Abstract” (how many records of jazz or any genre is Ron Carter NOT on? ). Also, the natural sound of the drums here is particularly pleasing to this listener.

This is obviously a bass-heavy album I had to stumble on at some point. In another life, I wish I had come up with the title Low End Theory, as any bassist would, I guess. More broadly, any fan of music will recognize the multiple qualities of an album that is one of hip hop’s greatest milestones.

A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (Zomba, 1991)

PS: check out Vijay Iyer on The Star of a Story, a cover of the Heatwave song sampled on the Quest’s “Verses From the Abstract”

Summer Vibe


It’s hard to believe but it looks like summer is here, in France. I could probably put together a list of essential jazz recordings to pack into your beach bag and just throw it out there. But I got to thinkin’, who in their right mind would actually listen to, say, Cecil Taylor or Andrew Hill over margaritas and in sweltering weather…(hold on folks, the list comes at the end of the post)

Also, I needed to make amends and give some long overdue praise to Butcher Brown, a hip hop-funk band which I have been listening to pretty consistently this year, whenever I want to take a break from my daily hardcore jazz/improv diet. In fact, for all their beat-driven instrumentation, each member has some serious chops suggesting heavy backgrounds in jazz, especially the drummer. I had been waiting for this, musicians celebrating Blaxploitation-era grooves and funk with a fresh modern edge. The band does a great job combining the alluring slinkiness of the 70s  – having the Rhodes as a founding instrument makes the connection inevitable  (think Roy Ayers for example) – with the more recent hip-hop beat culture. But make no mistake, this is not your bland jazzy loungy outfit trying to sell you on the merits of instrumental music. Comprising guitar, electric bass, Rhodes, some vocals and drums, the group harnesses the best and most influential fixtures of Black American music – the groove, the rhythm, the soul – and makes fresh fully instrumental music out of it. There is definitely a jazz attitude in that kind of proposition, a desire to acknowledge the seriousness and diversity of modern beats and how they pervade a wide spectrum of contemporary music. I hear you, Robert Glasper fans out there. Many jazz musicians today are celebrating hip hop culture and incorporating its rhythmic potential into their adventurous compositions. It’s a powerful force and it makes sense that some of today’s jazz is catching on to those beats. But back to Butcher Brown. The band has a full album available for free download on their website, here. So, no lame excuses, if you haven’t checked it out yet, now is the time. I’m telling you, you’ll want to drive around (if you don’t own a car like me, you’ll enjoy it even better as a backseat driver) windows down, nodding to the vibe, wishing you had been 20 in 1975. With spacious guitar, tight drumming (man, that drummer is really good), rumbling bass lines and titles like “Starlight Starbright, Brotha Bossa Nova, Beauty or Original Gangsta Music”, what else do you need to chill out and still keep your ears sharp? This is laid-back music played with conviction and taste. When you feel rested enough, there are some badass improvisers putting out new records by the ton these days. Probably a sign that while music doesn’t have to be serious, our troubled times require serious creativity. Maybe more writing on these recordings when I have processed them all.

And happy summer to you

Random recommendations:

Butcher Brown, A-sides, B-sides (what? You haven’t checked that out yet)

J Dilla,  Donuts/Rebirth of Detroit. Now I understand the worship surrounding the legendary hip hop producer, some killing flow on this)

And now for something completely different”:

Eric Revis, Parallax (with Nasheet Waits, Jason Moran & Ken Vandermark). Revis is a new hero of mine on bass, period.

Craig Taborn, Light Made Lighter (with Chris Lightcap and Gerald Cleaver)

Orrin Evans, “…it was beauty” (with Eric Revis and Donald Edwards). Can’t wait to listen to the full album.

And a big merci to Dirty Grids for the post illustration.