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Guru’s ‘Jazzmatazz’ gave agency to three decades of hip-hop and jazz fusion

Opinion: In recognition of the 30th anniversary of Guru’s solo debut, “Jazzmatazz Volume 1,” theGrio examines its affect on hip-hop and so-called jazz’s on-going alliance.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

The landscape of hip-hop was rapidly changing by 1993, as its commercial dominance and creative expansion were adjacently cresting. Part of that was due to hip-hop artists and producers experimenting with other genres with increasing frequency.

At first, hip-hop dipped their toes into the rock realm, thanks to Run-DMC and Public Enemy. Afrika Bambaataa pioneered a new sound incorporating electro. Groups from the Native Tongue clique, like Jungle Brothers and Queen Latifah, dabbled with house music.

With so much cross-pollination going on, hip-hop’s incorporation of so-called jazz was the most intriguing fusion that was slowing but indeed blossoming. Max Roach played drums with Fab 5 Freddy in the 1980s to signal the legends’ welcoming of the emerging genre and culture. Ron Carter played upright bass on A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory” album, while his ex-boss, Miles Davis, linked with producer Easy Mo Bee for his final album, “Doo-Bop.”

(Left to right) Guru (a.k.a. Keith Edward Elam) and DJ Premier (a.k.a Christopher Edward Martin) of the rap duo Gang Starr pose for photos at their tour bus in July 1998 outside the International Amphitheatre in Chicago. (Photo by Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

What was evident from these growing collaborations and the rising number of so-called jazz samples being used on records like “Rebirth of the Slick (Cool Like That),” The Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By,” and Us3’s “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” was mutual respect between hip-hop and the so-called jazz community. This was also leading to more critical acclaim, thanks to Quincy Jones’ “Back on the Block” winning Album of the Year accolades at the 1991 Grammy Awards after juxtaposing musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald with MCs like Big Daddy Kane, Melle Mel, Ice-T and Kool Moe Dee.

Enter Keith Elam, a.k.a. Guru.

Elam’s reputation as one of hip-hop’s most skilled MCs began building when he teamed up with DJ Premier to form Gang Starr in the 1980s. By the end of 1992, they had become a force on the music scene, thanks to classics like “Just to Get a Rep” and “DWYCK.” Premier was, and still is, notorious for his crackling, funky beats and virtuoso scratching. Meanwhile, Guru was known for his slick wordplay, cautionary tales and even-tempered vocals and flow.

Premier gets most of the credit as the main beatmaker, but in truth, all of Gang Starr’s albums list Preemo and Elam as co-producers. In 1993, when they began venturing out to do side projects, Elam had an ambitious idea. Premier had already been using jazz records as sample sources for Gang Starr tracks, so Elam took things further for his solo debut.

In May 1993, Guru released the LP “Jazzmatazz Volume 1: An Experimental Fusion of Hip-Hop and Jazz.” He set the tone for the record with the cover art. The cropped monochromatic photo of him holding a retro dynamic microphone as smoke revolved around his mouth was reminiscent of the classic Blue Note covers from the 1960s.

Elam took the fusion of live instrumentation and rhythmic sampling pioneered by Larry Smith and Dr. Dre to a new level of musicianship and sophistication. As the front cover stated, he was less of an MC on this album and more of a “host.” He allowed his all-star assortment of musicians and vocalists to shine equally to himself.

Donald Byrd, on trumpet, performs with rapper Guru during “Drum Festival” on July 1, 1993, at Berlage Beurs in Amsterdam. (Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns)

“Loungin’” starts the album with a laid-back groove featuring trumpeter Donald Byrd. The song was an ode to his then-home of Brooklyn while laying down the origin of hip-hop with DJs and park jams of the early 1970s. “Transit Ride” is another one of the aforementioned cautionary tales Guru was famous for. This how-to guide of being on New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority thumped hard thanks to the “Impeach the President” drum loop, a swirling rhythm guitar line from Zachary Breaux and Branford Marsalis using his saxophone to embody the chaotic atmosphere of a New York subway car.

One of the cornerstones of “Jazzmatazz” is “Take A Look (At Yourself).” Here, Elam calls out fake folks for coming at him without respect and authenticity, a theme that showed up a year later on Gang Starr’s biggest hit, “Mass Appeal.” Literal and figurative vibes, courtesy of Roy Ayers, accentuate the brooding nature of Guru’s damning rhymes. His signature xylophone is dynamic and infectious, but not without drowning out Elam.

“Jazzmatazz” gave the spotlight to great female vocalists as well. N’Dea Davenport and Carleen Anderson sing and write on “When You’re Near” and “Sights of the City,” respectively. Davenport, who gorgeously fronted the Brand New Heavies during their heyday, helped “When You’re Near” inform the neo-soul movement that would come a few years later. Meanwhile, Anderson’s “Sights in the City” built on the British Acid Jazz that was popular at the time (e.g., Soul II Soul), as Guru offered vignettes about how the dangers of the cities turn the innocent into victims.

While Elam returned to Gang Starr the following year, he would drop three more official albums of “Jazzmatazz” through to 2007. He would enlist Chaka Khan, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Erykah Badu, Bilal, Angie Stone and others in subsequent volumes. However, the first “Jazzmatazz” removed the hinges of an already-opened door. Not only did the album help hasten the neo-soul and alternative soul movement of the late 1990s and 2000s, but it would give acts like Robert Glasper, Roy Hargrove and Kendrick Lamar the permission to meld hip-hop and so-called jazz together deftly.

Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.

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The post Guru’s ‘Jazzmatazz’ gave agency to three decades of hip-hop and jazz fusion appeared first on TheGrio.

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