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?