Since its beginning, hip-hop has been a fusion of jazz, funk, and soul music laced with the lyrical influences of spoken word poetry and storytelling. From the raw creation of the culture to the current age, DJs have delved deep into their parent’s record collections in hopes of finding the exact sample that pays homage to their roots, while remaining progressive and original. As turntables and technology evolved, the element of “live” music in hip-hop diminished. The status of rappers inflated, while the appreciation for a full band fell by the waist side. But one group that has been able to battle the increasing lack of musicianship in hip-hop with the utmost creativity and innovation is The Roots—undeniably the hardest working band in hip-hop (or debatably, show business).
The Roots have always held a deep appreciation for live instrumentation and genre blending. Consisting of horns, keyboard, bass, guitar, percussion, and an emcee, The Roots have proven that they are not only a hip-hop group, but a talented band with the sophisticated ability to traverse genres. The Roots have collaborated with an unbelievable range of artists from Cody Chestnutt (“The Seed 2.0”) to Joanna Newsom (“Right On”) to John Legend (“Wake Up!”), while recently taking the day job as house band for “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” While The Roots have proved to be timeless, and have arguably remained the most impressive and successful band-backed hip-hop group, there has been a promising emergence of live band, jazz/funk/soul-influenced sounds from a young and innovative generation of brilliant, often classically trained musicians with an affinity for hip-hop.
Chicago is known as the birthplace of modern blues and jazz, producing the likes of Muddy Waters, Nat King Cole, and the Dixieland Jazz Band in the early twentieth century. It has been a hub of musical progression and expression for decades. As the generations of musicians in Chicago moved through genres, blues and soul evolved into hip-hop, producing the likes of Common, Kanye West, and Lupe Fiasco. In sequence of this rich musical history, it’s incredibly apt that young groups of musicians are fusing their classic jazz talents with the modern world of hip-hop.
Chicago-based group Kids These Days, who just released Traphouse Rock, their first full-length album free online with the help of Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, embodies this resurgence of live band hip-hop. The group is comprised of eight musicians: a three-piece horn section, two vocalists, guitar, drums, and an emcee. The majority of the band met while studying improvisation and jazz at the Merit School of Music in Chicago. In addition to their recent album, in 2011 they released their first EP, Hard Times. They were featured as the house band at VH1’s 2012 “Do Something Awards,” performed at 2011’s Lallapalooza, 2012’s South by Southwest, and on “Conan.” As the band continues to grow in acclaim, so does their work. Their album displays a tightly wound sound creating a multi-dimensional product. While many rappers choose to lace their tracks with features from outside vocalists, Kids These Days can keep it all in-house. The group’s sole woman, Macie Stewart, holds her own, flaunting soulful vocal range amidst a bright piano/trumpet intro on “L’Afrique,” the second to last track on Traphouse Rock. On their single, and viral YouTube video for “Don’t Harsh My Mellow,” Vic Mensa proves he can go toe-to-toe with any up and comer in the hip-hop game, spitting aggressive and agile bars. They’ve been honing their skills and are quickly becoming the most exciting full-piece band to watch for in hip-hop.
As previously stated, Chicago’s musical heritage is deep and the musical culture is still as potent as it was decades ago. Sidewalk Chalk, hailing from Chi-town as well, meeting in 2008 at Columbia College, is another eight piece neo-soul hip-hop group. Sidewalk Chalk just released its debut album, Corner Store, available on Itunes and Spotify. They have years of experience playing and writing together. With one spin of the record, it’s clear that these guys know the roots of their music. Singer S-Star (Margaret Vagle) provides crisp, tender vocals with an enlightened edge of spoken word poetry. MC K’neqta Dots (Rico Sisney) hits these live tracks with poised poetics, a refined style, and veteran confidence. The band often draws upon J Dilla instrumentals for inspiration. And in a unique display of innovation, Sidewalk Chalk includes award-winning tap dancer, Jumaane Taylor. Named 2010’s best hip-hop act in Chicago by the Chicago Reader, these guys are on an eminent rise. They have an organic sound and natural chemistry, polished musicianship, and an inspiring image of their future that they’re all dedicated to achieving.[youtube http://youtu.be/xDK_ziljxzU]
In more of the jazz realm of young, new hip-hop comes Toronto-based post-bop trio BadBadNotGood. Meeting at Humber College in 2010, BadBadNotGood has created a progressive and modern sound that seems revolutionary to the common, traditional jazz genre. They are composed of keys, bass, and drums. Noted for their 2011 affiliation with Tyler the Creator of Odd Future, BBNG has since sat as the band-in-residence at 2012 Coachella and opened for Roy Ayers at 2012 Nujazz Festival. They’ve released two free instrumental albums on Bandcamp: BBNG and BBNG2. They’ve remix and revamped tracks from Kanye West to James Blake to Nas. Their music embodies this cyclical relationship between jazz and hip-hop; where hip-hop was once influenced by jazz, jazz is now influenced by hip-hop. It’s incredible to see the interrelationships between these musical genres.
BadBadNotGood is rapidly on the rise, and their skill and appreciation for not only the art they’re producing, but the art that came before them, is contagious and promising.
Jazz, blues, and soul music have always been integral parts of hip-hop culture, but unfortunately the pure element of live music has been lost in the instrumentals and technology driven sound that has enveloped hip-hop in the last decade. All too often rappers are left onstage with the recordings of their songs playing over the speaker system, and they merely rap along to the pre-recording. It’s lazy, contrived, and uninteresting. These three young groups have provided an antithesis to hip-hop’s widely accepted laze. These bands are proving to be urbane, tight-knit groups of musicians with experience, energy, and force to move forward. The Roots have proved what eloquence these bands can aspire toward. For now keep your ears tied, eyes up, and support live band jazzy, neo-soul, whatever-you-want-to-call-it, hip-hop. These bands are bound to survive, strive, and bring hip-hop back to its collaborative, instrument-driven, modern musical roots.