Guru’s Jazzmatazz at 25

The innovative album that blends jazz and hip-hop celebrates its silver anniversary

Guru

Above: Guru in 1993. Photo by Thierry Le Goues.

A classic rule of journalism is “If you can’t be first, be best.” You could just as easily apply that principle to Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 by the late hip-hop artist Guru. A quarter-century ago, the rapper born Keith Edward Elam used his debut solo release to marry two genres—hip-hop and jazz—that had already enjoyed a long history of courtship. Through his careful calibration, the two discovered a more joyous, organic, and even-handed relationship than they had ever known before.

Guru had been enamored of jazz ever since he was a kid, when his godfather exposed him to the work of Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, and Betty Carter. The Boston-born, Brooklyn-based rapper took those influences so deeply to heart that they were already present in the first recording he cut with DJ Premier for their duo Gang Starr. That 1989 tune, “Words I Manifest,” smartly integrated Guru’s husky flow and Premier’s stalwart beats with a sped-up sample of Vic McMillan’s opening bassline (doubled by guitarist Arvin Garrison) on the Charlie Parker Septet’s 1946 recording of “A Night in Tunisia.” The next year, the pair pushed their fusion further by collaborating with Branford Marsalis on “Jazz Thing,” created for the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues.

The earliest flirtation between hip-hop and jazz dates back to rap’s foundational days, when DJs like Grandmaster Flash would scratch records by Donald Byrd or Roy Ayers in with the soul, funk, and disco staples of their sets. In 1983, Herbie Hancock brought his take on hip-hop jazz to the pop charts with “Rockit.” Over the next decade, everyone from Run-D.M.C. to Stetsasonic to Digable Planets snatched samples from genre stars like Bob James, Lonnie Liston Smith, and Miles Davis. By the time Jazzmatazz appeared in May 1993, “jazz-rap” had already become a full-fledged subgenre, informing acts from A Tribe Called Quest to Dream Warriors.

Guru’s pivotal achievement was to conceive the first full-length, equal collaboration between the two styles, something much meatier than rappers simply sampling the work of jazz stars or the latter using the former as window dressing. He convinced Donald Byrd, Lonnie Liston Smith, Roy Ayers, and others to come into the studio and lay down full, live solos amid an array of hard beats, fixed samples, and fleet raps. He also invited along R&B singers like Carleen Anderson and N’Dea Davenport, who together forged a kind of Triborough Bridge between hip-hop, jazz, and soul, in the process bringing the earlier British innovation of acid-jazz to a whole new level.

The album kicked off with an “Introduction” that doubled as a mission statement. “Rap is real,” Guru intoned. “And, at the same time, jazz is real.” The playful dialogue between live improvisations and set beats that followed backed up his words, sounding fresher, looser and, well, jazzier than any previous iteration of this stylistic mix. Rap’s connection to jazz’s freedom, and to the history of African-American music in general, was now crystal clear.

“To me, the genius of Jazzmatazz was that Guru was able to interface with musicians who could work with this music and not turn their noses up at it,” says Courtney Pine, who played both saxophone and flute on the album. “We all found a way to make it work.”

On “Loungin’,” for example, Byrd let his trumpet sputter and sway around deep-loping basslines and Guru’s cool flow. For “Down the Backstreets,” Liston Smith used both acoustic and electric pianos to tug at the beat before unleashing an assertive solo. On “No Time to Play,” guitarist Ronny Jordan slipped silvery fills into each nook and cranny of the melody. The album’s hardest-hitting number, “Slicker than Most,” married Guru’s tense rap to wailing sax and fluttering flute, both provided by Gary Barnacle.

Two tracks now hold special historical value. In “Transit Ride,” Guru sketched out a New York subway story that today’s MTA doesn’t want you to hear, drawn from the final, pre-Giuliani reign of graffiti, scratchiti, and casual muggings. He also re-teamed with Marsalis, whose soulful sax work way outpaced their “Jazz Thing” collaboration. “Sights in the City” offered an even more tense and elaborate tale of a young man’s stumble into crimes of escalating consequence. To match Guru’s verse, Pine used his sax and flute to nail the menace and excitement of the old New York. Together, they created a sound at once claustrophobic and free, nailing a central irony of urbanity.

“That session was so open-minded,” Pine recalls. “Usually, in a session, someone just says to me, ‘Oh, can you lay over this bit?’ But this was very organic between me, Guru, and Carleen Anderson. It was like three chefs in a room—one adds some pepper, another some cayenne, and a bit more garlic. Then they all put it in the oven and see what comes out.”

Jazzmatazz made waves with tastemakers as well as with Guru’s peers. “I tour all over the world,” Pine says, “and that album is one that people still come up to me and ask me to sign. The ramifications of it were felt all across the board.” Still, the set wasn’t a huge seller, only managing to reach the lower rungs of Billboard’s Top 100. (It did make the Top 25 on the publication’s R&B/hip-hop list.) Although Jazzmatazz spawned three sequels, culminating in 2007, none had the impact of the first. Three years after the last of the series appeared, Guru died of cancer at 48.

To celebrate the silver anniversary of the original work, Virgin Records has expanded Jazzmatazz into a triple-LP box set, complete with new remixes, instrumental variations, and outtakes. For longtime fans of the original, it’s exciting to hear various components rearranged, turned upside-down, or even stripped to the bone. As luck would have it, this reissue arrives at a time when jazz is enjoying a whole new vogue in hip-hop, evidenced by the work of high-profile stars like Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and Robert Glasper. Heard in that context, Jazzmatazz sounds more visionary, and prescient, than ever.

Read a 2007 JazzTimes profile of Guru.