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By Jay Quan

Published Wed, April 10, 2024 at 8:00 AM EDT

Jazz music has always been an integral part of Hip-Hop. Many of the culture's foundational breakbeats were created by jazz artists.





From "Take Me To The Mardis Gras", and "Nautilus" by Bob James to "Kool Is Back" by Funk Inc. and "Mr. Magic" by Grover Washington Jr., jazz records have always been part of Hip-Hop's "sacred crates", a term popularized by Grandmixer D.ST. In the early days of rap recordings, jazz artists such as Pieces of A Dream ("Mt. Airy Groove"), and Herbie Hancock ("Rock It") have experimented with Hip-Hop to great commercial success.



In Hip-Hop's sample heavy era of the mid 1980's through the early 2000's many artists scored hit records, and established their signature sounds with samples from jazz records. Ahead of The Rakim & DJ Jazzy Jeff & Ravi Coltrane Project Produced by Jill Newman Productions at D.C.'s Kennedy Center on Friday April 19, Rock The Bells sat down for an exclusive interview with Rakim and DJ Jazzy Jeff about how jazz informed their formative years.



Rakim, who has long compared his game changing cadence and flow to that of a saxophone, comes from a lineage of great musicians, and music played a major role in his upbringing. "My mother sang everything from jazz to opera, and one of her favorite artists of course was Ella Fitzgerald," he explains. "There was also Sarah Vaughn and so many others," he said further.


I was the odd ball kid. While everyone else was listening to WDAS, I was trying to get them into 'Chameleon' by Herbie Hancock

- DJ Jazzy Jeff to Rock The Bells, 2024



Rakim, the youngest child in his household credits his siblings with contributing to his love of jazz. "We listened to a lot of jazz, and a lot of r&b/soul," he revealed. "I was the youngest, and my oldest brother and sister went out and bought vinyl, and I had the privilege of enjoying music from all generations. There was Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye from my parents, and then Sly & The Family Stone from my brother, and Stephanie Mills from my sister."



DJ Jazzy Jeff shares a similar childhood experience with the God MC. "I was the youngest of six, and being the youngest, I was the last person that was able to pick music," he recalls. "I became a sponge because my dad who passed away when I was ten was an MC for Count Basie, and we had all these 78's [78 RPM vinyl records] in the house. Records by Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, and Arthur Prysock, and my brothers were into the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock, while my sisters were into Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder."



Jeff explains that as a result of the musical melting pot that he experienced growing up, he had a stack of music that was played in his house, once Hip-Hop hit the scene. "I have to give credit to my brother for showing me how to take a record out of a jacket when I was eight years old. You put your thumb on the side so you don't get fingerprints on the records. He showed me how to put a record on the turntable, and he gave me the ability to use a hi-fi system when he wasn't home. I was making Herbie Hancock mixtapes at 9 years old. I didn't know what I was doing, but the music that made me feel a certain way, I'd put on tape.



The musicianship in Rakim's family rubbed off on him, leading to him playing instruments early in his childhood. "My oldest brother played piano, and my brother above me played the saxophone," he explained. "Luckily my brother was lazy and would put his sax down and lay it on the sax case, and when he left I'd pick it up and try to play what he just played, or my favorite song that was out at the time. I got a chance to experience the sax early before kindergarten. I played the recorder until I was able to get my sax in the fourth grade."



Being able to play his brothers piano and saxophone really gave Rakim a little more love and understanding of music, he says. "My oldest brother Ronnie was in [Kurtis Blow's touring band] Orange Krush, and he played with Mighty Sparrow, so it was dope to hear those stories. My brother just above me, Stevie Blass played on my records, and was a go to whenever I needed a bassline or something replayed. Actually both of my brothers played on my records, but Stevie was my go to."

Rakim @ Wyandanch Jr High School, 1985

Rakim remembers his parents basement as a place that he would go to zone out to music. "I was sitting in the basement kinda wrapped up in the music, and my mom and pops had a little section in the basement where they had all their records on the shelf. If they played a record, the album cover would be sittin' there, and we read the covers a lot while the song was playing."



Ra says that as he went through the album covers in the basement, he was immediately inspired by a Coltrane tune. "I remember this day sittin' in front of the album covers, not focused on any one in particular," he says.



"My mother was playing a John Coltrane record, and I don't remember him playing the same melody twice. When it went off, it felt like the world cut off. It was just so dope how he attacked the record. He basically solo'd or improvised through the whole song. I remember saying 'That's how I wanna flow. I don't wanna repeat a cadence throughout a song. I'm gonna change by cadence every few bars.' It just felt like an adventure that he took us on, that's why when it went off it felt like everything stopped. I felt like if I could emulate that, I figured my songs would have an energy, like he took me on a journey."



"I fell in love with the sax, and I felt that if I wanted energy on a track, nothing did it like the horns," Rakim says. "It's a sound that stands out, the bass is the backbone, but them horns set the scene and let you know that something is about to happen, or if this is a laid back scenery. I always love incorporating the horns to bring that energy."




"When Hip-Hop came along, it was a natural evolution for me to fuse what I grew up with to what we were doing,' Jazzy Jeff says. "It wasn't a stretch for me to use 'Mr. Magic', 'Fallin' Like Dominoes, and Bobbi Humphrey because these were records that we had in the house, and just from your siblings and parents you started a record collection. My love of jazz started because I was a victim of being the youngest and listening to whatever was in the house."



As far as his later years as a producer and DJ, Jeff says that his "love of music brain" didn't mix with his "producer brain". "I'm a massive fan of Pat Metheny, The Yellow Jackets and stuff like that, but never in a million years thought about using any of it until later on in life. I was using what my brothers played. For my enjoyment I knew the CTI label because of Bob James, and when I started getting into production I learned that all of these labels had a sound. Most of the songs were recorded at the same studio, and I wondered 'how do they make it sound squished', before I knew about compression and limiting."



When speaking of Jeff's classic "A Touch of Jazz" from Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's debut album Rock The House, Jeff says that the records that he used on it - Donald Byrd's "Change", Bobbi Humphrey's "Harlem River Drive", and "Mr. Magic" by Grover Washington Jr. were all records introduced to him by his brother. "Those were the records that my brother played, that I'd put on a mixtape," he explained.



"One day I decided to make a beat and cut those records in, but I was really self conscious about playing it for anyone. Me and Rakim often talk about this. Early on me and Will did a show with Eric B. & Rakim in a place like North Carolina or somewhere, and after the show we were hanging out in my room and there were a bunch a people and a boombox. I walked into the bathroom, and one song was going off and my rough version of 'A Touch of Jazz' was coming on. I ran out of the bathroom to cut it off, and Eric B. asked 'What the **** is that?' I said 'Something I'm working on.' He was like 'That **** is incredible', and that's what made me do it. That song wasn't supposed to ever see the light of day."




As early as 1982 major jazz figures were experimenting with Hip-Hop. "Mt. Airy Groove" by Pieces Of A Dream was produced by the late great Grover Washington Jr., and contained an instrumental as well as a rap version. Eight years later Grover Washington Jr. would collaborate with Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince for "Jazzy's Groove".



"Pieces Of A Dream were my age, and some of the members actually did my prom," Jeff reveals. "Pieces Of A Dream are from Philly, so I knew them from Philly. Grover Washington Jr. is from Philly as well. Once me and Will started, we got love [from older musicians]. Kenny Gamble [of Gamble & Huff and Philly International Records] is like one of my big brothers, so we got love from Teddy Pendergrass and Gamble & Huff. It was like we were being accepted as part of the Philly lineage. I remember Kenny Gamble being like 'That Touch Of Jazz is bad man!'"



Jeff says that he had no problem securing Washington for the collaboration. "We put together 'Jazzy's Groove', and he said that he'd love to do it. This was pre Tribe Called Quest, when everybody started diggin' for jazz records. The music was so new that we were still searching for legitimacy, and that's what Grover gave us. "


When discussing "A Touch Of Jazz", Jeff explains that the original version released by Word Up records was an instrumental, but when they signed to Jive Records Will wanted to rap on it. "We were in the studio, and Will wanted to rap over it, and I was mad," says Jeff. "That was my piece, but once he put the rap on, it was kinda hot. It was good having two versions though, because there were stations in Philly that only played the instrumental, then the Hip-Hop stations played the one with Will's vocal.




Jeff shared that during the Covid pandemic he received a call with an offer to remix some Bob James songs for an upcoming project. "Bob James actually sued us many years ago for sampling 'Winchester Lady' on 'Here We Go Again'," Jeff shares. "Hip-Hop was new and we were using ****, and people didn't know. During the pandemic, I was forced to shut down and spend a lotta time in the studio and I've never been more creative. During that time I got a call to remix some Bob James classics.



I was excited initially then I thought, Bob James isn't dead. Instead of remixing something, I'd like to do something new with him. So we got on the phone and the first thing he said was 'Is this the DJ Jazzy Jeff that we had an issue with?' We laughed about it, and I explained to him why we sample in Hip-Hop. I explained to him that I was able to produce Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild because I went down the rabbit hole and discovered who played on his records, and he loved it!"



Check out The Rakim & DJ Jazzy Jeff & Ravi Coltrane Project Produced by Jill Newman Productions D.C.'s Kennedy Center on Friday April 19. Tickets available here.

Edited by JumpinJack AJ
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