Jazzmatazz Vol. 1
Chrysalis Records, 1993
When thinking about jazz and hip-hop, a word that comes to mind is synergy. In bringing together hip-hop and jazz, there is a certain synergistic energy that takes both types of music to a completely different level. And let’s be honest, you can easily make the argument that hip-hop is jazz and vice versa. One example of this is the album Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1, the 1993 classic by the late Roxbury native, Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal (Guru). Complete with a live band of legends such as Branford Marsalis, Donald Byrd, Lonnie Liston Smith and Roy Ayers, Guru combines the instrumentation and heart of jazz with rapping and the more technological aspects of hip-hop. The end result is Jazzmatazz, a record that will stand the test of time as its influences can still be heard in music being made today. This is also because of its creativity and the ways in which it shows the beauty of two distinct types of music that are also much the same.
On the intro Guru explains over the velvety cool of a trumpet:
“Welcome to Jazzmatazz, an experimental fusion of hip-hop and jazz. I’m your host, the Guru. That stands for Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal. Now I’ve always thought of doing something like this but I didn’t wanna do it unless it was gonna be done right, know what I’m saying? Cause hip-hop, rap music, it’s real. It’s musical cultural expression based on reality. And at the same time, jazz is real and based on reality.”
Here Guru is setting up the background to his debut masterpiece and the rest of what will be heard on Jazzmatazz. From there, Guru launches us into sounds and lyrics that are a perfect blend of musical styles that are both smooth and rough around the edges.
The sensual “When You’re Near” is seductively romantic. It hums with guitar and sizzling hi-hats and features the irresistible voice of N’Dea Davenport who sings, “You and me, can be so free/ You inspire, to take me higher/ I want you now, to show me how/ To relax me, and light my fire.” Following that is “Transit Line,” a jazzy, uptown boogie with Branford Marsalis on sax and Zachary Breaux on guitar that hits hard like concrete but is still delicate with the touch of Marsalis and Breaux.
“Transit Line” describes a day in the underbelly of 90’s New York City. This isn’t necessarily a new topic to hip-hop. However, the combination of Guru’s lyrics and live jazz creates a different sound and feel to this familiar narrative. Guru provides social commentary based on observation as he raps:
“This train is packed, you don’t get no seat, yup/ You gotta stand on your tired feet/ Where we goin don’t worry, you’ll be there in a hurry/ But you better watch your pockets cause the thieves work quickly/ This is a New York transit thing/ Don’t wear too much gold and hide your diamond rings/ And don’t smile at anyone/ Cause people out here, they like to travel with handguns.”
Guru isn’t necessarily going to throw out rhymes that are overly complicated and complex. I don’t mean this as a slight. On the contrary, Guru’s lyricism is honest, to the point and let’s you know what the score is. With the musical backdrop provided on Jazzmatazz, Guru’s delivery is just right.
The same could be said about tracks that appear later on the album. On “Take a Look (At Yourself)” Roy Ayers shows off his dexterity on the vibes as Guru throws line after line about not being wack. Later, “Slicker Than Most” is a funky braggadocious anthem with woodwind royalty, Gary Barnacle. “Le Bien, Le Mal” features the French rapper, MC Solaar with a very early 90’s boom bap beat that is perhaps the most overtly political song on the record. Finally, “Sights in the City” tells the story of Emmit, Renee and Mr. Fillmore, all three characters that fall victim to what Guru calls “the system,” this being the allure of the drug trade, prostitution, and gun violence. Guru is on a different level lyrically, telling us a story that is incredibly tangible. It’s night, the street lights are flickering beams of beige onto the street and these three characters live in all of us.
If you take the time to listen to Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 you will feel the sophisticated energy of live jazz as well as the unapologetic force of boom bap. On top of that, you will hear stories and reflections on life that take you to the city, fully engulfed in the sights and sounds. The power of this record are the feelings that Guru is able to create in the bridging of hip-hop and jazz. The thing about Jazzmatazz is that its influence can still be heard today as artists such as Oddisee and L’Orange incorporate live ensembles into the sample heavy music they make. There is no doubt here that Guru did it the right way, representing jazz and hip-hop culture in such a way that is true to both while also creating something that is fresh, original and still sounds that way today. If only Guru were still with us.
Out of the funk, soul and jazz realms came hip-hop, a cultural mix of the arts and expression that featured aspects of these movements to birth a whole new identity. The hip-hop overlap with jazz is a strong one, a tantalizing combination of boundless cultural expression and a look and depiction of the urban inner-city life. On what is perhaps the first feature fusion record of hip-hop and jazz, Gang Starr’s late Guru explores this relationship in his first Jazzmatazz series.
With a backing band of talented jazz musicians, Jazzmatazz Vol. 1 dives straight into a vast tub of subject matter, diverse sound and free-range thought. With a sultry and subtle flow, Guru takes on topics like self-education, self-improvement and the ongoing problems happening in the inner-city. Without sounding too bland or repetitive, he spills his thoughts and stories swiftly onto the album’s canvas. Pair this with the musicianship of Jazzmatazz itself, a record that is skillful and concrete along many different fundamental jazz lines, and you now have an album made for both fans of hip-hop and fans of jazz, which undoubtedly makes this an important piece in both hip-hop and jazz.