There are things in this world that go together so well, that we wonder how did the universe survive before the combination: chocolate and peanut butter, chips and salsa, cookies and milk…jazz and hip hop. When Guru dropped Jazzmatazz, Volume One on May 18, 1993, it was the genesis of one of the music’s great collaborations. Here was an established MC (Guru was half of the legendary hip-hop duo Gang Starr) who chose to blend the urban vibe of rap with the quintessential energy of jazz. This swirl of sound produced 12 tracks that would contribute to the shine that emits from the golden era of rap.
Hip hop always showed jazz-influenced characteristics, especially during this period (i.e., A Tribe Called Quest‘s The Low End Theory, Digable Planet‘s “Rebirth of Slick”). Guru went beyond demonstrating hints of the jazz genre within the context of hip-hop’s young sound; he placed them both front and center with the help of prominent jazz artists like Donald Byrd, Branford Marsalis, Roy Ayers and Lonnie Liston Smith. As Guru once stated about the project, “Jazz’s mellow tracks along with the hard rap beat, go hand-in-glove with my voice.”
While the album is unmistakably hip hop, with Guru’s punctuated and smooth flow, the overall aura is distinctively jazzy. When “Loungin'” comes on, the headnod is involuntary as the steady kick and snare lays a foundation for Byrd’s trumpet and piano to dance in tandem with Guru’s lyrical flow.
Big Shug‘s vocals rock in tandem with Ronny Jordan‘s funky guitar on “No Time to Play” proving that jazz is more than introspective ballads and lackadaisical melodies. Ironically, “Take a Look at Yourself” does encourage you to look within as Roy Ayers signature vibraphone syncopates with the verse and hook that explores the importance of taking responsibility for our lifestyle. After Guru drops knowledge, Ayers goes completely in on a vibes solo reminiscent of jam sessions of the ’60s and ’70s.
Jazz, soul and R&B are encoded in hip-hop’s DNA, which is evident with the grooving, sexy rhythm of “Trust Me” featuring N’Dea Davenport of the Brand New Heavies. This is one of my favorite tracks as it encapsulates the last installment of warm, analog sultry production reminiscent of the ’90s – before digitally saturated, Auto-Tuned songs become the flavor du jour of the 21st century. Davenport’s voice is so steady and meaningful, it almost feels like a sample, but it was all her. All real. All good.
Another standout offering is “Le Bien, Le Mal (The Good, the Bad)” with MC Solaar cracking heads open with a killer rhyme delivery in French. Not since ATCQ’s “Luck of Lucien” had “francais flow” taken center stage on an American hip-hop composition. Solaar’s international lyrics, the jazzy trumpet on the hook, the solid hip-hop beat courtesy of DJ Premier and Guru’s commentary on urban struggle (which truly hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years) was a groundbreaking collaboration of culture, generations and genres.
Some of the darker tracks like “Sights of the City,” which chronicled the dismal path of street violence, and the braggadocio “Slicker Than Most” didn’t get many spins on my CD player back then; however, they didn’t take away from the overall excellence demonstrated on this project. Jazzmatazz, Volume One sparked a succession of subsequent volumes each with its own flavor of jazz/rap fusion, but none ever coming close to the original volume that started it all.
Listening to this album 20 years later, I can’t help but reflect on how my ears have matured to fully appreciate this intricate arrangement of legendary jazz musicians, young hip-hop producers and a prolific MC who was ahead of his time. When it first dropped I, like most of my peers, were just high-top fade wearing teenagers hungry for the latest LP. Hip hop was still unapologetically ours, with only slight hints of over-commercialized, beat manufacturing. I don’t think we sincerely understood the significance of Guru’s plight to reach back to the jazz genre that inspired the pure hip hop that pulsed through his veins and out onto the landscape of one of hip hop’s finest hours. Jazzmatazz, Volume One is a hidden gem buried in hip-hop’s timeline.
Unfortunately due to his passing in 2010, we’re unable to ask Guru what fueled his passions for this project or how he feels it stands amongst his entire catalogue. I’m willing to bet that this is the album that would evoke the biggest grin on his face.