Berklee College Of Music professor Raydar Ellis began a high-profile-for-CMJ discussion of the relationship between hip-hop and jazz by talking about Miles Davis. The jazz icon’s son Erin Davis and nephew Vince Wilburn Jr. discussed his legacy with Revive Music C.E.O. Megahn Stabile and Wax Poetics Editor-In-Chief Andre Torres. However, the conversation soon evolved into an open-forum session about jazz’s under-appreciated influence on contemporary hip-hop, as attendees and surprise panelists Jean Grae and Pharoahe Monch joined the milieu. “Jazz for young people is something older people do,” said Torres, who noted that contemporary mainstream hip-hop incorporates electronic sounds over jazz because techno is more profitable in younger markets. “I show kids in their 20s my magazine, and when they see someone with an Afro on the cover they go, ‘Oh man, my mom would love this,’” he said.
The discussion started by tossing around names like Digable Planets, the Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest, but quickly turned to study the Throne, whose virtually jazzless hip-hop rules the mainstream. “For the guys in [mainstream] hip-hop now, it’s a business,” Davis said of artists like Kanye West and Jay-Z. “They’re not going, ‘Man, I gotta express myself. I really want to tap into the source of this.’” Panelists agreed that the burden of paying proper homage to hip-hop’s roots lies as much on the shoulders of artists and the media as those of the listeners. “Kids are amazingly lucky today, but they don’t know it and they’re fucking lazy,” Jean Grae told the audience. Despite unprecedented access to music via the Internet, listeners by and large aren’t looking into the lineage of the music they listen to, nor do most search for contemporary jazz/hip-hop musicians. But part of the problem, a panel attendee countered, is that the media isn’t giving enough attention to those little-known artists. “Who’s gonna tell them who to listen to?” an attendee asked. “Hot 97,” a panelist responded dryly.
As for artists, panelists dissected the challenges for up-and-coming jazz/hip-hop musicians in a market that doesn’t pay much attention to jazz. Kanye West and Jay-Z aren’t doing any jazz collaborations, but jazz fusion musicians can’t sit around waiting for the Throne to come knocking, Wilburn said. “Certain hip-hop stars really respect jazz, but if we wait for them to reach out to us it’s not gonna happen.” Torres lauded crossover musicians like Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding for developing the next generation of jazz/hip-hop sounds. “Young jazz cats” now face the challenge of internalizing the music of legends like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker “in a way that becomes their own” and resonates with other members of their generation.