Blue Note

The ’90s Alliance Between Blue Note and Hip-Hop

Ron Hart

By Ron Hart

on 02.02.15 in Features

“It started out as a beat thing,” explains Mr. Walt, one half of the veteran hip-hop production crew Da Beatminerz along with his brother Evil Dee. “When I first took production seriously, I was working at Music Factory in Jamaica, Queens. That line Q-Tip says on ‘What’ off Low End Theory — ‘What’s Music Factory without Mr. Walt?’ — that was me. Even though I was older than he was, I saw what Tip was doing, and I was like, ‘Wow, they’re not using regular breaks. They’re using breaks that nobody ever heard of and going at them hard.’ So we began looking in the jazz department for beats and it led us directly to Blue Note.”

‘[In its early days], jazz got the same treatment as hip-hop. Jazz got dissed the same way hip-hop got dissed. And it seemed like [Blue Note] saw how similar it was.’

Steely Dan might have been the first act to sample them — nicking the opening notes of Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” at the top of their signature hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” — but it’s in the universe of hip-hop that the influence of Blue Note Records is most deeply felt. Da Beatminerz, who borrowed liberally from the Blue Note catalog for their string of underground singles in the ’90s for Brooklyn rap greats like Black Moon (of which Evil Dee was a member), Smif-N-Wessun and Originoo Gunn Clappaz, are just one of the many Golden Age pioneers who built their sound from the bars of classic ’60s and ’70s jazz albums. A longer list reads like a Who’s Who of hip-hop: A Tribe Called Quest, Main Source, Kool Keith, the Notorious B.I.G., Black Sheep, Warren G., the UMC’s, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Kool G. Rap & DJ Polo and Akinyele among many others. As with so many things in hip-hop’s history, the alliance began with a bout of fortuitous crate-digging.

“I had bought Ronnie Laws’s Pressure Sensitive at a used record shop,” explains Mr. Walt, referencing the saxophonist’s 1975 jazz-funk masterpiece. “It was one of those places where you could just find records on the floor. I bought that, along with a whole bunch of stuff and brought it home. When Evil heard ‘Tidal Wave,’ he looped it right away. All our producer friends were mad when they heard [Black Moon's] ‘Who Got Da Props?’, because they all had the record and they never did anything with it.”

Blue Note was enjoying a resurgence of its own at around this time, following its relaunch in 1985. Other record labels were throwing lawsuits at the producers and artists who utilized their vast catalog to create beats, but instead of suing enterprising hip-hop producers, the label’s president at the time, Bruce Lundvall, doubled down on their interest. First, he reissued many of the albums that provided the source material for some of the most well known rap and hip-hop tracks of the late ’80s and early ’90s. The rereleases were dubbed the Rare Groove Series, and they included such formerly hard-to-find gems as Jimmy McGriff’s The Worm (1968) and organist Reuben Wilson’s 1969 LP Blue Mode. What’s more, Lundvall actively encouraged the jazz artists on his roster who were looking to incorporate hip-hop elements into their own compositions.

“[In its early days], jazz got the same treatment as hip-hop,” proclaims Evil Dee. “Jazz got dissed the same way hip-hop got dissed. And it seemed like [Blue Note] saw how similar it was. So they looked at it and were like, ‘Man, hip-hop is showing us love and providing us with longevity for our catalog. Let’s just embrace it.’”

Blue Note’s debut foray into the genre was renowned saxophonist Greg Osby’s 1993 LP 3D Lifestyles, arguably the first proper interpretation of hip-hop by a living jazz leader. According to Osby, the album derived from his days moonlighting on the beats for some of the most renowned hip-hop and R&B artists of the Golden Age.

“Throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was contacted regularly by a number of well known New York City-based hip-hop artists who wanted me to lead the charge in terms of commissioning groups of musicians to replicate the samples they wanted to use for tracks,” he says. “For example, if somebody wanted to use a James Brown sample, and they only wanted the horn riff, it would cost somewhere in the range of five figures at the time. So they would call me to get together a bunch of well known jazz musicians who wanted to remain anonymous and we’d go into the studio and change the sample they wanted, whether it be altering the key or the tempo of a sax line but keep the flavor of the original so nobody could come after us about copyright infringement. Then, the producer would go in and dust up those samples with scratches and pops and all kinds of filters so it would sound like an old sample. A lot of popular horn riffs and rhythm section grooves that were on hit records are actually us.”

Drummer Otis Brown III, whose own Blue Note debut The Thought of You (2014) is a direct descendent of Osby’s experiments with the chemistry between hip-hop and jazz, recalls traveling from Hackensack, New Jersey, to Manhattan as a student to see Osby and his band perform live. According to Brown, even when performing straight-ahead jazz, the crisp Carhartt denim, baggy khakis and flat-brimmed baseball caps the musicians would be wearing onstage was an indication of their strong ties to rap culture.

“I remember a lot of the cats from the Osby camp were getting signed, like Jason Moran and Stefon Harris,” Brown recalls. “They rolled more like a crew than a proper jazz band. I used to go see them in the city all the time. It was amazing to watch them do their thing live early on and then go on to see each of them get signed to Blue Note, almost like the Wu-Tang Clan in a way.”

For Osby, however, working alongside the likes of such prolific figures in hip-hop like CL Smooth, Tribe’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and the Bomb Squad’s Eric “Vietnam” Sadler did not go over too well with the staunch traditionalists of jazz.

“I actually sustained a lot of bruises,” Osby says. “I caught so much resistance from the jazz police, because they felt I was wasting my time with people they were led to believe didn’t know jazz history. But 3-D Lifestyles was meant to be a summit for the top guys from each genre to meet in the middle and have a healthy shaking of the hands and see if we could yield a fruitful harvest. I didn’t want the guys who could spout off jazz history. I wanted the guys from the street, and that’s who I got.”

By late 1993, Lundvall’s fascination with hip-hop would end up giving Blue Note the biggest windfall of the label’s then-half-century existence after they signed London groove collective Us3. Their debut, Hand on the Torch, yielded Blue Note their first platinum LP, as well as their first Top 10 hit since the ’60s with the Herbie Hancock-sampled single “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia).” The entire record was built on samples from the label’s catalog, cleared with the blessing of Mr. Lundvall, which rendered Torch a definitive statement of glasnost between the samplers and the sampled.

‘At the time, sampling was still a controversial subject, but I specifically said that I wanted the original artists to be paid their dues. If any label would have the vision to take this step into the future it was Blue Note.’

“Realistically, there was only ever one record company on the planet that would have the foresight and the balls to hand over their back catalog to a couple of producers,” explains Us3′s chief producer Geoff Wilkinson. “At the time, sampling was still a controversial subject, but I specifically said that I wanted the original artists to be paid their dues. I thought that was fair. If any label would have the vision to take this step into the future it was Blue Note. It was entirely in keeping with the original pioneering spirit of the label.”

Blue Note furthered its ventures in hip-hop the following year when they released the groundbreaking compilation The New Groove: The Blue Note Remix Project Vol. 1, a collection of some of the most famous breaks in the label’s archives reworked by some of the hottest beatmakers of the day, including Large Professor, Diamond D, Guru and an early turn from ?uestlove.

The New Groove was the first project to feature the input of Eli Wolf, a former intern who rose in the ranks to become Blue Note’s Vice President of A&R. Now an outside consultant and producer for the label, Wolf has been responsible for some of Blue Note’s most exciting releases of the last 20 years, including Madlib’s groundbreaking reimagining of the label’s vaults Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note, and 2013′s surprise collaboration between Elvis Costello and the Roots, Wise Up Ghost. But The New Groove proved to be Wolf’s breakout as a major player behind the scenes.

“That project actually came about because of the Beastie Boys,” Wolf explains. “They were like, ‘Do you know how responsible for hip-hop Blue Note is these days?’ [The title track from] Jeremy Steig’s [1970 LP] Howlin’ for Judy with the famous flute loop — they used that for “Sure Shot,” which was released around the same time — 1994. So they said, ‘Yo, we’re sampling Blue Note. Tell someone at Capitol that Blue Note should do a project like this.’ It was probably Mike D. who came up with it. He is really smart like that.”

By the late ’90s, artists who were signing to Blue Note were incorporating elements of hip-hop as naturally as their predecessors were delving into funk and R&B. Guitarist Ronny Jordan, a key figure in the British acid jazz movement, collaborated with the Artist Formerly Known as Mos Def — Yasiin Bey — on his 1999 album A Brighter Day along with veteran underground producer DJ Spinna, who also lent his skills to clarinetist Don Byron’s 1998 funk-inspired LP with his group Existential Alien entitled Nu Blaxploitation, which also features a cameo from Biz Markie.

“The late ’90s was definitely when the hip-hop stuff was getting pretty cool in jazz,” says guitar legend John Scofield, who recorded a string of classic albums in the early ’90s for Blue Note. “I’m no hip-hop expert, but I always dug it, especially that big funk sound done by some of the artists in that genre. And it was also when people started to use some of the same technologies they were using for hip-hop in jazz on a more creative level. It was a great era, when a lot of stuff came together.”

Yet the most dynamic and inventive incorporation of hip-hop on a compositional level was the Blue Note debut from Medeski Martin and Wood. On 1998′s Combustication, produced by the acclaimed jazz-funk trio with underground beatsmith Scott Harding, MMW infused their trance-inducing grooves with a heavy spoonful of turntablism, provided by acclaimed crossover artist DJ Logic. This virtuosic extension of DJing, not dissimilar to the acrobatic soloing of jazz icons like John McLaughlin and electric bassist Jaco Pastorius, was popular at the time and MMW, while citing that Combustication paid homage to their heroes of Blue Note from the past, made sure to keep their feet firmly planted into what was happening at the time.

“Hip-hop was definitely an influence,” admits bassist Chris Wood. “You just couldn’t help it at the time. There was an exciting creative energy from the hip-hop world. I think jazz musicians got attracted to that and, rhythmically, it swung. So there was this very natural connection between the two.”

Now, as Blue Note celebrates its 75th anniversary, the relationship between jazz and the music it helped shape has grown considerably. You can hear its progress in the current works of newer artists like Brown, newly signed songstress Kandace Springs, vocalist Gregory Porter, pianist Robert Glasper and bassist Derrick Hodge.

“I remember in college starting to check out jazz and connecting the dots,” recalls Hodge, who has also collaborated with such R&B and hip-hop acts as Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Timbaland, Kanye West and Gerald Levert. “I was definitely inspired by some of the artists on Blue Note who were doing a lot of other things. I am a huge fan of Stefon Harris, and I remember him working on Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, which also happened to be where I first heard J Dilla as well. Hearing both of them on that record had a profound effect on me as an artist.”

Anyone who wonders about the direction of where the marriage between Blue Note and hip-hop is going should consider these two prime examples: Grammy-winning producer Denuan “Mr” Porter released a beat tape for free on Rappcats, which takes the music of Robert Glasper and chops it up, transforming the pianist’s work into a loose, inventive pastiche of instrumental hip-hop. Then there is Wise Up: Thought Remixes and Reworks, a companion EP to the Costello/Roots album featuring the uncanny beat-making of Karriem Riggins, an accomplished drummer for such names as Oscar Peterson, Bobby Hutcherson, Ray Brown and Diana Krall who pulls double duty as a hip-hop producer, working with Slum Village, the Roots and Talib Kweli, among others.

While neither of these gentlemen is signed to Blue Note as artists (yet), both Porter and Riggins display the absolute quintessence of the label’s relationship with hip-hop during the ’90s under Bruce Lundvall and currently legendary producer Don Was, who continues to nurture the relationship between jazz and its urban counterpart as lovingly as his predecessor.

“I think there’s a whole generation of both hip-hop and jazz artists who really know their history and are looking to progress through it,” says Wolf. “They say everything is derivative. Well, yeah. But you take musically from what you know historically, and you see how you can make your own voice form all of these influences. Whether it’s Kendrick Lamar or Flying Lotus or Clams Casino, there are some talented cats who are doing deep music and relating to jazz in new and interesting ways well beyond the four-bar or two-bar loop theories of the 1990s.”