The Hip-Hop/Jazz Crossover Strategy Guide


During late May’s packed Revive Da Live show at Sullivan Hall, it was nearly impossible to distinguish who came for the hip-hop from who came for the jazz. The Yankees cap and blue button-down . . . the two-tone spring dress and flip-flops . . . the open plaid shirt, ironic T-shirt, and Chuck Klosterman–style frames . . . the blooming Afro, hoop earrings, and variegated skirt . . . the Kangol beret, baggy jeans, and backpack . . . by all signs, they’d come for both.

At a Revive show, such cultural collision is precisely the point. This time, at the onset, a contagious instrumental funk sextet called Six Figures laid down a heavy vamp—”Do you all know this tune?” asked tenor saxophonist James Casey with an insouciant smile. Everyone did: It was James Brown’s “The Payback.” The 15-minute, genre-bending odyssey that followed couldn’t be explained away as simply jazz, or hip-hop, or funk, or neo-soul—but one thing’s for sure: It worked.

On June 24, the series continues at (le) poisson rouge as part of the Care-Fusion Jazz Festival, with Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli joining New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Payton and an 18-piece big band featuring some of the city’s most electrifying young lions of jazz, not to mention the jazz-oriented dance crew Tap Messengers. “Collaborations like this are what’s natural—they make perfect sense to the true musician and the true fan,” Kweli notes in an e-mail. “I consider myself both.” An aficionado of seminal jazz singer Nina Simone, the always-polemical raconteur’s recently released Revolutions Per Minute reveals his jazz roots on several tracks produced by frequent collaborator Hi-Tek. “If Miles Davis was alive, he’d be a gangsta rapper,” Kweli declares. “Different generations are influenced by different things and use different instruments, but the passion and the sentiment are the same.”

Revive Da Live began in 2006, the brainchild of Meghan Stabile, now 27, who noticed that many of her peers at the Berklee College of Music were as well-versed in jazz as they were in hip-hop, the music of their youth. More than two dozen usually-sold-out shows later, she’s now fielding requests to expand into Paris and Japan, in addition to managing many series regulars under the Revive umbrella, and launching a forthcoming blog in affiliation with Okayplayer, the online hip-hop community founded by the Roots’ omnivorous drummer ?uestlove, a series veteran. Past Revive shows have featured jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding, NYC rap legend Pete Rock, neo-soul singer Bilal, vertiginous saxophonists Mark Shim and Marcus Strickland, pianists Robert Glasper and Marc Cary, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, and trumpeter Igmar Thomas, among others.

“I’ve got to be very strategic,” Stabile explains. “If I say ‘jazz’ too much, I might not get a lot of hip-hop people coming out. If I say ‘hip-hop’ too much, I might not get a lot of jazz people. But sometimes, we get a 60-year-old jazz head coming out, just rocking out, and that’s when I almost tear up.”

When this type of genre mash-up falls flat, the results can be tectonic—look no further than Buckshot LeFonque, saxophonist Branford Marsalis’s nebulous mid-’90s collaboration with iconic hip-hop producer DJ Premier—but when this tightrope walk succeeds, the harmonic union can be extraordinary. Revive shows play into a rich history: In 1971, spoken-word artist Gil Scott-Heron provided the hybrid prototype with The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a mantle eventually taken up by ’90s hip-hop group Digable Planets, the late Jazzmatazz impresario and Gang Starr co-star Guru, socially conscious rhymesayers A Tribe Called Quest, neo-soul singer Erykah Badu, lyrical rapper Mos Def, crossover jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, pianist Vijay Iyer, and numerous others.

“It’s more eclectic than ‘jazz hip-hop,’ per se,” says drummer Dana Hawkins, a Revive mainstay, who has toured with r&b singer Estelle. (Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the Revive collaborators are drummers.) “The scene could use a little more love, everybody really just checking each other out—unifying. It’s a little divided. Music that people used to dance to has become music that people are sanctimonious and overly religious about.”

“I hear people saying that hip-hop is dead and jazz is dead—I really feel like that is just a lie right now,” adds drummer Justin Brown, saxophonist Kenny Garrett’s new timekeeper of choice. “We have jazz, we have rock, we have hip-hop, but I really feel that this generation tries to put them all together and express love and really make it personal. You build up a vocabulary so that you can really speak your own language.”

It’s not only Revive that’s exploring this fertile ground. Drummer Ben Perowsky, leader of avant-garde group Moodswing Orchestra, features hip-hop freestyler TK Wonder on his front line; a June 25 show will toast adventurous East Village club Nublu’s eighth anniversary. “The way she flows, it’s like a horn player,” Perowsky says of Wonder. “If there is any jazz going on in hip-hop, I feel like it’s coming from the rappers more so than from the beats. The improv aspect of it is coming from the rhymes, and that’s where the jazz is.”

Ultimately, Revive shows allow for the “complete liberation of what art is,” explains MC Raydar Ellis, who performs in the series and is also Berklee’s first professor of hip-hop. “It’s like Louis Armstrong said: ‘Good music is the kind that I can tap my foot to.’ ” Nor does that familiarity end when everyone steps offstage. “We’re all friends, too. What we’re trying to put forth with the music we play is the experience we have with each other.”