Shades of Blue
Blue Note, 2003
Blue Note Records is a jazz label that has been around since 1939. Covering traditional jazz, modern jazz, bebop, swing and rhythm & blues, Blue Note Records has been a force in all realms of the jazz world. Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Fats Navarro and John Coltrane are just a few of the artists who have worked with Blue Note Records, and with such an arsenal of artistic talent, they are considered one of the premier jazz labels of all time. The hip-hop world has sampled and remixed many Blue Note tracks, and from Pete Rock to J Dilla, legendary artists in hip-hop have paid their respects. One such hip-hop project like this is Shades of Blue by Madlib, an album that remixes old Blues Note Records’ songs and creates a sonic fountain of harmony and dedication to both the jazz world and Blues Note as a whole.
Diving into the vast reaches of Blue Note’s caverns of original cuts and mastertapes, Madlib creates an album that’s mostly full of beautiful renditions that are transformed into downtempo croons with a hip-hop instrumental backbone. Fulfilling harmonic goals and inserting newly transformed instrumental recordings into classic melodies, Madlib concocts a catchy dynamic that shines brightly with perfectly executed precision and concept. “Stepping Into Tomorrow” is the glue that fuels this project, running nearly eight minutes long in a large bowl of funk, manic drumming and Donald Byrd’s interweaving trumpet flares. The first full length track, “Slim’s Return”, has Madlib chasing the music with scratching, twiddling bass riffs that roll like a spider spinning his prey and a rhythm that shouts “classic jazz” and “hip-hop groove” all while leaving you in a trance.
This is the essence of Shades of Blue. As Madlib reinterprets and reinvents classic Blue Note tracks, he at the same time pays homage to its beauty and influence by molding his multi-instrumental work with original sampling. What makes this different from other hip-hop instrumental and sampling tracks is that Madlib stresses harmony and rhythmic tone rather than looping everything together. This in turn is a nod to Madlib’s creativity beyond the music, as he invents names and members for all of the fictional artists he spews all over this record. For example: “Song for My Father” is a remix of the original by Horace Silver’s Quintet, and is performed by Sound Directions, a fictional band that was created by Madlib to grace the credits. James King plays the fluttering flute woos, Dan Ubick strums the cutting jazz guitar fills and Malik Flavors supplies the splashy percussion. However, all of this is Madlib, and all of those names are Madlib’s monikers.
Shades of Blue is a testament to many things. In one corner you have Blue Note Records, a legendary jazz label known for supplying some of the greatest jazz artists and songs in music history. In another corner you have Madlib paying his respect and showing the influence this infamous label has had on him by remixing some original cuts. In the third corner you have Madlib’s creativity as an artist and producer, as he multi-tasks to the furthest edge of extreme by layering instrument after instrument together and creating fictional bands and artists as production credits. And finally, in the last corner you have the hip-hop/jazz relationship, and just how important jazz has been in hip-hop culture, not only for sampling and remixing, but also for supplying a specific influence to help create and propel a culture that has become a worldwide beat.
Jazz and hip-hop are linked in so many ways. For example, both are grounded in African-American culture and are heavy on improvisation. A freestyling MC is much like a soloist who is playing notes off the top of his/her head. Another way they are linked is that hip-hop producers sample jazz records. Artists such as DJ Premier and A Tribe Called Quest are well known for doing this. A great example of how these two musical genres will forever be linked is Madlib’s 2003 record, Shades of Blue.
Shades of Blue is a fusion of jazz and hip-hop music that celebrates the old while ushering in the new. For this album Madlib remixed music of the well-known jazz record label, Blue Note. The end product is a work of art that has the swing of hard-bop and the swagger of boom-bap.
Shades of Blue is complex as it demonstrates the creative possibilities of hip-hop production and the musicianship of Madlib. On top of that, this record gives new life to artists of the past. For example, this record led me to find old music that I had never heard before. After hearing the first track, “Slim’s Return”, a hard-hitting cut driven song by syncopated percussion, I had to know what was being sampled. The original song is as groovy and called “The Book Of Slim” by Gene Harris & The Three Sounds. Only one song in, I was discovering amazing music of the past that I may have never heard. In this way, Shades Of Blue is worth the listen because it encourages an investigation and exploration into the history of music.
While hip-hop producers sample many different types of music, jazz has had a heavy influence on hip-hop and its producers. This can be heard in the music of DJ Premier, A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla and many other producers and hip-hop acts. On Shades of Blue, Madlib shows how and why jazz and hip-hop are linked. In doing so, he has resurrected musicians of the past. If you’re down to find out about amazing musicians of a different era, a record such as Shades of Blue is an ideal place to start.