It is still possible, in 2018, to come across people who insist that hip-hop is some sort of “lesser” form of music. I know this because honest-to-god adults have said it to my face, quite earnestly. It’s all samples, they’ll cry, with no one actually pressing fingers to frets, no one reading sheet music! Rapping is just rhyming—they don’t even sing! These arguments are best met with silence—they rebut themselves—but you have to imagine how deafening they were a quarter-century ago, when Guru, the vocal half of iconic New York duo Gang Starr, released his solo debut. With the all-time-great producer DJ Premier, he had perfected a certain strain of tight, minimalist boom-bap, frequently drawing from immaculately chopped jazz samples. But Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 took it a step further, an album-length proof of concept that mixed rapping and traditional hip-hop production with live instrumentation provided by jazz heavyweights like Lonnie Liston Smith, Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Branford Marsalis, and more.
Guru leans way the hell into the premise, with a Blue Note-style cover and critical liner notes designed to aid in comprehension. The project is referred to several times in the packaging as “an experimental fusion of hip-hop and jazz,” and in a 90-second introduction Guru declares, “Hip-hop, rap music, is real. It’s a musical, cultural expression based on reality. And at the same time, jazz is real.” The record sought to make explicit and tangible a connection that was being explored not just in Guru’s work with Gang Starr but also the burgeoning Native Tongues movement, the full-band instrumentation of Stetsasonic, and in the work of a whole host of other golden-age producers like Large Professor and Pete Rock. And even though hip-hop soon became dominated by G-Funk, gangsta rap, and the long, ugly jiggy era, the cultural moment reflected on Jazzmatazz never quite went away. It lingers via The Roots’ permanent impression upon the pop culture imagination, Kendrick Lamar’s dalliance with jazz on To Pimp A Butterfly and Untitled Unmastered, Madlib’s remixing of the Blue Note canon and his improvisational approach to creating Madvillainy, as well as the endless loops of lo-fi, background hip-hop you can find on any streaming platform these days.
A new three-LP rerelease of Jazzmatazz packages the original album with an instrumental version and a third set of remixes, and, well, it’s a lot of Jazzmatazz, to be honest. But at its best, it’s still revelatory hearing Guru riff right alongside an absolutely gonzo Roy Ayers on “Take A Look (At Yourself)” or hitting transcendent waves of cool with Donald Byrd on “Loungin’.” The instrumental LP functions more as a highlight of Universal/Urban Legends’ re-pressing: Guru didn’t quite have Primo’s expertise at producing drums, but they still knock mighty hard on the remastered “Trust Me” and “When You’re Near.” And the remixes are shaggy fun, letting in a bunch of burrs and rough edges that a lot of later jazz-rap fusion (on Stones Throw Records, for example) would embrace. Still, it’s the clarity of Jazzmatazz’s vision that impresses today. Guru would go on to refine the concept on three more volumes, in 1995, 2000, and 2007, each of which is a sort of pure document of its era. For my money, the second installment is the best, but even if the first volume has lost some of its urgency over a quarter-century, it retains its masterful composition, the graceful throwback presentation and Guru’s laying-it-out-there introduction. You feel some of the spirit of ’93 hip-hop in it, which is about the best thing you can say about a record.