September 30th, 2007

Talkin’ All That Canon: On Hip-hop’s Jazz

Did I say something about “counter” canons? I think I like “loose” canons better. But the gist remains: that is, if we listen to some genre of choice through the ears of another, it can tell us a great deal about both genres (which is to say, about the producers and devotees of both).

— or to put it another way, that canon, if we are to use the concept productively at all, should be viewed as a deeply perspectival thing, rather than pretending to enshrine the universal, the quintessential, the best (as if such value judgments could ever become “objective” “facts”). This is obvious if we think of the typical musical canon, at least as reproduced by most music departments: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and anything in between, but not much beyond. I don’t want to rehash the Bloomian debates about the values of great works (by dead white men, natch) vs. the so-called “political correctness” of incorporating a wider range of works by a more diverse bunch of authors, composers, producers, performers. Nope. I’m not interested in recuperating or reaffirming the idea of a canon at all. I am interested, though, in reformulating it in a rather specific way.

With regard to hip-hop, I’m a lot less interested in the idea of a hip-hop canon, per se, than in understanding what we might think of as hip-hop’s canons — i.e., what is “jazz” for hip-hop heads? what is “reggae”? which works typify or symbolize these genres for hip-hoppers, and how do such “canons” depart from jazz or reggae devotees’ ideas about the great works of their respective genres? what are the implications of such differences, or what can they tell us about how these genres circulate and resonate outside of purist circles? what does “hip-hop’s jazz” tell us about hip-hop? about jazz?

These kinds of questions engage my imagination a lot more than trying to establish any sort of hip-hop canon, a project that has reared its head again of late, e.g. —

(See also, e.g.:

As the WNYC program notes, the reason for this most recent rearing of (talking) heads — insightful as the MAN is — is the publication of Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique, a much expanded version of his self-published book Rakim Told Me (as plugged by me way back when). Brian has been interviewing hip-hop artists and producers for years and years, and his books offer wonderful insights into some of the genre’s most well-worn and well-loved albums. But Brian’s work does not explicitly propose a hip-hop canon (or implicitly, in my opinion), even if that’s what newscasters and podcasters keep asking him about. I suppose that sort of idea gives (bougie) listeners, watchers, and readers something to relate to. (Get it? It’s like classical music! Only noisier!)

I don’t see any reason to equate Brian’s selection of albums with a hip-hop canon, classic and central and important and influential as any and all of those albums may be. Not do I see any reason to establish or argue about a hip-hop canon at all, unless we really want to see hip-hop go the Lincoln Center route. (We at w&w most certainly do not — Harvards and Stanfords and Smithsonians of the world be damned.)

[Incidentally, or not so incidentally, I’m happy to announce that Brian will be playing some records at Beat Research tomorrow night. Details here.]

So let’s return to the idea of “loose” canons and what they might tell us about the edges and contexts of hip-hop (which is, I contend, a lot more than a hip-hop canon will tell us about the music and its social and cultural embeddedness).

Last time I was discussing hip-hop’s reggae (or, in other words, the reggae that shows up in hip-hop DJs’ crates and is sampled for hip-hop beats), which tends to differ in some interesting, significant ways from what, say, reggae enthusiasts (whether moldy fig rootsters or their bashment brethren) might hold in their hearts and crates. But another illuminating example — and one that perhaps more provocatively illustrates the concept — is what we might call hip-hop’s jazz.

The thing about hip-hop’s jazz is that, for the most part, it hardly squares with jazz’s jazz (that is, the idea of the jazz canon from the perspective of a jazz musician or a jazz “buff” — from the original moldy figs to the hardboppers). I may be underestimating the number of poptimists among jazz aficionados, but I suspect — and this is only from an anecdotal/personal perspective — that most concepts of the jazz canon tend to leave out some of hip-hop jazz’s most central players: Bob James, Grover Washington, Donald Byrd, David Axelrod, Roy Ayres, George Benson, &cetera.

While hip-hop producers have sampled jazz pretty widely, it’s striking — but not terribly surprising, given hip-hop aesthetics and the age of most producers — that the preponderance of jazz-derived samples come from late 70s, quasi-quiet storm, proto-smooth jazz-funk. One of the best examples of this, of course, is Bob James’s “Nautilus” —

[click here for the full version, which, unfortunately, imeem now makes you login to hear]

Now, “Nautilus” would hardly make a “best composition” list in Down Beat, but one listen and any hip-hop head worth their salt is instantly transported to track after classic track that chopped, looped, and otherwise employed the James track to great effect. And those loops, those little moments, jump out of the track like brilliant little ideas rather than tossed off licks or arrangements. We thus listen to jazz (or “not-jazz” depending whom you ask) differently because of hip-hop.

& although certain producers (e.g., Premier) have shown an acquaintance with and love for the jazz tradition that extends beyond the 70s and well into the established jazz canon, it is telling that 70s schmaltzfunk more often makes the cut and hence represents “jazz” for a lot of hip-hop producers and listeners alike. Should this affect how jazz devotees conceive of the great works of jazz? I wonder. Should it affect how we think about hip-hop’s relationship to other (African-)American repertories and the implications of those relationships? Perhaps.

At any rate, these are questions that are a lot more interesting to me than whether Black Moon or 2 Live Crew deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as PE or Rakim. Check the technique indeed. Then ask yourself: What does it say about hip-hop, about jazz, about me?


  • 1. badman bidness at music.m&hellip  |  October 1st, 2007 at 8:58 pm

    […] WayneandWax on Hip Hop’s Jazz. […]

  • 2. kevin r hollo  |  October 1st, 2007 at 9:24 pm

    such a wonderful topic! i love harold bloom, for so many reasons, not the least of which is publicly puncturing and deflating his thousand tiny egos.

    in response to the first question, i don’t think it says much about a sampled work’s cultural origin once it’s achieved that status. the moorings can be loosed enough to drag a song or melody or drumbeast or voice or whatever into another discipline/realm/arena/culture, but ultimately all it does it point more closely to the origin across that long or short distance. playing that little snippet of bob james with the context of hip hop looming just makes me shudder a bit at how schmaltzy it is. i imagine a producer bobbing his head, like, “damn, this is hard!” but is it? not really. i’ve got a stephane grapellli record that fucking slams my head everytime i play it. all acoustic, all swing, totally fucking hard.

    take for instance kanye (kantstandya) west, with his recent spatterings that somehow involve the indie realm. we often take it for granted that the sample fits the occassion, particlarly when a superproducer is involved. but what is the impact on daft punk? does their reception change at all? their definition, if they could be defined? it ultimately (in a subjective waY) doesnt affect my love or appreciation for their craft, nor does it benefit the music in any way. promotion? great. do we need that right now, if ever?

    hip hop’s relationship to jazz/rock/electronic/dance…that’s a super problematic topic and one that i think deserves every bit of attention anyone is willing to give it. ESP when it comes time to talk canon, which is what america loves to do. how about a list of constraints? where do we start? yeah, you’ve got the four art forms of hip hop, but just looking at the music, and NOT doing a chrono-job, where do you start? with lyrical prowess? motivation? influence? longevity?

    more important is this: what is the purpose of such a canon? what does it unseat, or what does it engrave? what does it set free from moorings?

  • 3. kevin r hollo  |  October 1st, 2007 at 9:26 pm

    oh, and the “purist” defines the canon. so anything outside of the purist is going to resonate the canon. so to get outside the canon, do we kill the purists? ;)

  • 4. AKinCLE  |  October 2nd, 2007 at 9:05 am

    Most likely, the average producer or DJ would rather work
    with “Nautilus” or “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” than Bob James’ LP on ESP where he collaborated with Robert Ashley. Me, I’m still smarting from giving my only copy of Albert Ayler’s “New Grass”
    (“Next came the r’n’b album New Grass, reviled by his fans and generally considered to be the worst of his work. Following its commercial failure, Ayler unsuccessfully attempted to bridge his earlier “space bebop” recordings and the sound of New Grass on his last studio album Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe, featuring rock musicians such as Henry Vestine of Canned Heat alongside jazz-men like pianist Bobby Few.”–swiped from Wikipedia) to some NY dude who was visiting the store that I worked at in the 80s (maybe Daddy-O from Stetsasonic). In retrospect, this was not the jazz that they were talkin’…
    I certainly didn’t revile that album; neither did the band V-Effect (,
    who used to do “New Generation” in their set.


    “the moorings can be loosed enough to drag a song or melody or drumbeast or voice or whatever”…Cool! I want to hear more drumbeasts in HipHop!

  • 5. AKinCLE  |  October 6th, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    The third track, by Francois Rauber, is a good example of jazz for hip-hop heads, one deftly played groove with some trumpet or fluegelhorn floating over the top…perhaps too monotonous for a jazz purist, but to a sampler beguilingly malleable like a “sticky rope.”

  • 6. Birdseed  |  October 9th, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    I think there’s a difference here and it’s got me wondering a bit. The difference between this “canon” and the reggae “canon” from last time is that, for the most part, these artists are mainly canonised as sampling sources. It’s as if hip-hop’s funk was construed as purely Apache, Funky Drummer, Amen Brother, UFO etc.

    I’m not convinced anyone would actually sit down and listen to those tracks as music to actually enjoy (Amen Brother is particularly boring), and if hip-hop is a community as well as a style of music then shouldn’t that be the criteria for canonisation?

  • 7. wayneandwax  |  October 9th, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    Hmmm. Good question, Birdseed. I’m not sure really. You’re right that hip-hop’s jazz is more a set of sample sources than, say, records to play alongside hip-hop records. But the line blurs a little bit too since a lot of the reggae tracks popular among hip-hop aficionados often get sampled too. And don’t tell people they can’t sit down (or, maybe better, lay down) and listen to Roy Ayres and Grover Washington, or you might have a fight on your hands.

    Personally, I like listening to “Amen, Brother” ;)


I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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