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Modern Jazz-Rap

This musical and cultural relationship between jazz and Hip Hop did not die out in the 90s. The Jazz Rap subgenre, which often overlaps with conscious rap, is one of the most popular styles of Hip Hop today. Its most successful artists, including Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, have released some of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed projects in recent years and were undoubtedly influenced by early jazz rap groups like A Tribe Called Quest. The closing tracks on both J Cole’s 2016 record, 4 Your Eyez Only, and Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 record, To Pimp A Butterfly,employ soft jazz instrumentation over prominent basslines and hard-hitting but laid-back drums and sound like they could have easily fit into A Tribe Called Quest album. Specifically in the title track on 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole uses a sample consisting of soft trumpet, bass, and guitar instrumentation from Yuji Ohno, who seems to be a jazz-influenced soundtrack producer (WhoSampled “4 Your Eyez Only”). The drums on Cole’s track also mirror the style of A Tribe Called Quest as they are loud and the main focus of the beat, in typical Hip-Hop fashion, but are also swung and slightly behind the beat. J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar even collaborated on an homage to A Tribe Called Quest called “Forbidden Fruit” in 2013, in which the two used the same sample that wasused in the 1993 song by A Tribe Called Quest, “Electric Relaxation”.

The video style of A Tribe Called Quest also influenced a generation of rappers who grew up with their music and through them, were influenced by Jazz. The video for “Alright”, by Kendrick Lamar, contains so many stylistic similarities to the “Jazz (We’ve Got) Buggin’ Out” video, there is almost no doubt it was an inspiration. For one, both videos are shot mostly in Black and White. In both, this choice seems to signify the past and specifically in the “Alright” video, probably is making a statement that race relations, are essentially still stuck in the past like the scenes in the video. Both videos also employ blatant stereotypes of black culture, before returning to scenes depicting reality. In the “Buggin’ Out” section of the two-part video, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg wear fake eyes that are reminiscent of black-face caricatures. Just after that scene the video ends as the non-diegetic music is cut, leaving the viewer with a scene of the three musicians rapping in a circle, in a dark area outside, or reality. In the “Alright” video, the music begins with the four TDE artists rapping, dancing, and partying in a car, before the camera zooms out to see the reality of the situation. Four police officers are carrying the car, which seems like a more accurate reality than the party lifestyle often portrayed in Hip Hop.

Finally, in addition to the instrumental and video influence, the vocal style of A Tribe Called Quest has also proven to be very influential. To use another J. Cole example, his song “Wet Dreamz” has many similarities to the Phife Dawg focused song, “Butter”, from The Low End Theory. Both songs deal with various girl problems the two have gone through. They are clearly fairly serious and relatable topics that bring about deeper insight, however both rappers tell the stories using clever and sometimes funny rhymes. Instead of focusing on more surface-level and party-friendly lyrics like groups like Run D.M.C, or the darker tones of contemporaries like N.W.A or Public Enemy, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg found a conscious yet light and palatable rap style that many later rappers wanted to emulate. Both today and in the ‘90s, Hip Hop has faced difficulties breaking into the mainstream due to its tendency to include vulgar lyrics and its general attitude of rebellion as well as its outsider status brought about as a result of being a black artform. A few traditional, non-pop-oriented Hip Hop artists like N.W.A were able to enter mainstream consciousness, however most had more niche audiences. Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, aided by the more laid-back instrumentation provided by the fusion of Jazz and Hip Hop instrumentation, found ways to rap about subjects that were interesting enough to keep people’s attention, while staying relatively clean and light relative to many of their Hip Hop contemporaries. This style has stayed at the forefront of Rap ever since, and has allowed the genre to enter the mainstream in the 21stcentury.