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Jazz Remixed: Blue Note Records’ Burgeoning DJ Catalog

Long-established links between jazz and the DJ have taken on new strength, with the help of the venerated label

Makaya-McCraven (photo: Nolis Anderson) - Jazz Remixed: Blue Note Record’s Burgeoning DJ Catalog
Makaya McCraven (photo: Nolis Anderson)

Take a look at Blue Note Records’ release schedule for 2022 and it’s hard to miss the significant percentage of electronic-oriented music. In March, the label released Blue Lab Beats’ debut LP, Motherland Journey, which found the London-based duo—NK-OK and Mr. DM—assembling an enticing amalgam of jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and Afrobeat. Later this year, it plans to launch a series called Blue Note Beat Tapes, overseen by rapper/podcaster/Kinda Neat YouTube channel founder Lee Shaner. The first release is produced by beat maker Dibia$e, who developed his skills in Los Angeles by attending “Sketchbook” gatherings outside the Little Temple in Echo Park and at the Low End Theory in the early aughts, alongside other noted instrumental hip-hop artists such as Flying Lotus, Daddy Kev, Daedelus, Gaslamp Killer, Ras G, and Jonwayne; the series will continue with entries created by Elaquent and Linafornia. Also slated for this year is Blue Note Re:imagined, Vol. 2, the follow-up to the 2020 compilation that highlighted some of the U.K.’s finest artists on the contemporary jazz and DJ scenes. 

That spate of releases comes on the heels of last year’s Deciphering the Message, the sample-heavy Blue Note debut from drummer/producer Makaya McCraven, and the Bluewerk compilations, a collaborative effort with the electronica imprint Astralwerks involving nifty downtempo tracks. And the aforementioned are barely the tip of a very large iceberg. For more than a quarter-century and counting, Blue Note has been building a burgeoning discography that both documents and deepens its relationship with DJ culture. 

Danceable grooves and distinctive drum breaks have long been Blue Note touchstones, and that insistently seduces DJs, the label’s president Don Was argues. “If you put on a Blue Note record from just about any era, you can identify it as a Blue Note record before you can identify who the leader is on it,” Was asserts. “There was a repertory company of players, and there is a sound and feel to the music. And on a subliminal level, it cuts deep and gets inside of your skin quickly.”

Was contends that the improvisational pliancy and rhythmic strength of many Blue Note cuts make them ideal for sampling by DJs of multiple generations and/or idioms. “Those classic Blue Note rhythm tracks are built for improvisation and stretching out,” he says. “You can find that section of the song where the rhythm section can support whatever is going on top. That’s one reason people keep coming back to the Blue Note catalog. Also, it’s just cool music.” 

What’s fascinating about this new crop of DJ-centric Blue Note releases is how they’re as self-referential to the label’s history with DJs as they are to its jazz roots. As it has with hard bop, soul-jazz, and jazz-funk, Blue Note is cultivating its own influential legacy within the expansive jazz/DJ culture realm. And that growing body of work deserves curatorial study and validation on its own terms.

Blue Lab Beats: Mr. DM (L) and NK-OK (photo: Joseph Abbey-Mensa)
Blue Lab Beats: Mr. DM (L) and NK-OK (photo: Joseph Abbey-Mensa)

Madlib’s Shadow

It’s no coincidence that rapper/producer Madlib’s Shades of Blue, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, informs both Deciphering the Message and Dibia$e’s Beat Tapes. McCraven’s album refracts Blue Note chestnuts—including Hank Mobley’s “A Slice Off the Top,” Bobby Hutcherson’s “Tranquility,” and Wayne Shorter’s “Mr. Jin”—through a prism of rugged hip-hop beats while blurring the lines between remixing and reimaging as he employs jazz comrades such as trumpeter Marquis Hill, guitarist Matt Gold, and saxophonist Greg Ward to improvise atop the jostling mélange of sampled tracks, digital beats, sonic filters, and vigorous live drumming. 

Madlib deployed a similar approach to songs like Donald Byrd’s “Distant Land,” Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Bounce,” and Bobbi Humphrey’s “Please Set Me at Ease.” Sometimes he completely overhauled compositions like Horace Silver’s “Peace” and Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance” by playing all of the instruments. As an instrumentalist, Madlib’s chops are noticeably inferior to McCraven’s—or, indeed, any of the other musicians he enlisted on Deciphering the Message. Nevertheless, Shades of Blue conjured a hazy allure that continues to influence other jazz/hip-hop hybrid models. 

“A lot of my inspirations are people like Madlib, DJ Premier, J Dilla, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad,” McCraven says after citing Shades of Blue as a classic Blue Note album. “Their [recordings] were my first forays into sample-based music. When I’m sampling, I’m first digging the crates as a fan and listening for stuff that I like. I have the utmost respect for this music. I also look at it as though I’m taking part of some tradition. Sampling is now a great part of jazz culture.”

Dibia$e doesn’t insert any new conventional jazz instrumentation on his Beat Tapes release like McCraven or Madlib, but he does share Madlib’s beat-making language when he crafts head-nodding yet jazz-inflected off-kilter rhythms that underscore skewered samples from the Blue Note catalog to the point of their being nearly unrecognizable. The album’s capricious, somewhat manic manner is similar to Madlib’s Beat Konducta, Vol. 5-6: A Tribute to … (Stones Throw), his haunting 2009 remembrance of Dilla, who released his final album, Donuts (Stones Throw), in 2006, just three days before he died at the age of 32. Donuts and Madlib’s Beat Konducta series have since become sacred texts for a host of contemporary artists that cross the axis between acoustic jazz and digitized beat-making.

“As I was going through so many of these Blue Note records, I heard so many intros, tags, outros, and licks that people trade and use and become part of the jazz vocabulary,” Diba$e says. “The musicians that I’ve been listening to have been doing that forever as well. You sample something, then use other musicians to fill out the tracks. To hear Madlib’s take on Blue Note Records, then learn of the stories about him learning instrumentals to play along with some of the stuff while making Shades of Blue blew my mind.”

“One of the important things about Shades of Blue is that it showed that Blue Note plays a huge role in hip-hop history,” Lee Shaner adds. “Some of the biggest rap beats have been Blue Note samples. So, with Shades of Blue, to me, it seemed like the label was acknowledging its history in accordance to hip-hop.”

“When I’m sampling, I’m first digging the crates as a fan and listening for stuff that I like. I also look at it as though I’m taking part of some tradition. Sampling is now a great part of jazz culture.” —Makaya McCraven

Acid-Jazz Roots

Through their sampling of Pee Wee Marquette, the legendary emcee at New York City’s Birdland jazz club who would often introduce artists like Lou Donaldson and Art Blakey in an excitable, high-pitched voice, Deciphering the Message and Dibia$e’s Beat Tapes also echo the Blue Note LP that really set the standard for the label’s entry into DJ culture: Us3’s influential debut, Hand on the Torch, which next year will celebrate its 30th anniversary. 

Helmed primarily by London-based Geoff Wilkinson and Mel Simpson, Hand on the Torch marked the first time that Blue Note allowed DJs to raid its catalog for sampling without the threat of legal repercussions. Hand on the Torch came out during both hip-hop’s golden age and the height of the adjacent acid-jazz scene. That period saw the rising popularity of the Native Tongues collective (A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, and Queen Latifah, among others) alongside Paul Bradshaw’s pioneering U.K.-based magazine Straight No Chaser, Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud label and BBC radio shows, and Maurice Bernstein and Jonathan Rudnick’s Giant Step parties in New York City.

The album’s first single, “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),” became an acid-jazz anthem. Herbie Hancock’s hard-bop composition “Cantaloupe Island” was the sampled basis of the song, while trumpeter Gerald Presencer and rapper Rashaan Kelly helped retool it for a younger generation. 

While Us3 was creating Hand on the Torch, Wilkinson was spinning every Friday night at the Jazz Café in London. “That undoubtedly helped,” Wilkinson says. “DJs make great producers because we [see what happens on] the dance floor. We get an instinct of what works and what doesn’t. That helped subconsciously in producing the album.

“Hip-hop was moving away from sampling so much James Brown,” Wilkinson adds. “There were producers like Prince Paul coming on the scene, who was sampling more wide-ranging stuff. I’ve always maintained that the big difference between Us3 and most of the other jazz-sampling things back then was I used a lot of the gems from the ’60s hard-bop period instead of Blue Note Records’ ’70s catalog. We were sampling the stuff that was becoming funky before people were widely using the word ‘funk’ to call a genre of music.” 

Because of the ubiquity of “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),” which peaked at No. 9 on Billboard’s U.S. Hot 100 chart, naysayers lambasted it as a kitschy marketing ploy to help Blue Note better sell its back catalog for the CD market. Thus, Us3 and specifically Hand on the Torch often get slighted when it comes to both jazz and hip-hop history.

“Universal Records did a reissue of it for the 20th anniversary,” Wilkinson notes. “They remastered the album, so it sounded a bit tougher. But weirdly, they didn’t actually promote it, which made reissuing it a bit pointless.” 

Wilkinson nevertheless recognizes the album’s impact. “I know that we were trailblazers for Blue Note,” he says.

Shaner’s experience confirms this. “When I was first getting the ears of the Blue Note Records guys to pitch this Beat Tapes project, I used ‘Cantaloop’ as an example,” he says. “As a kid who loved hip-hop music when that song came out, I didn’t really know anything about Blue Note. When Us3 came out, I was 11 or 12. ‘Cantaloop’ had a huge effect on me. I would stay up and wait for it to come on MTV.”

Ezra Collective (Courtesy of Blue Note Records)
Ezra Collective (Courtesy of Blue Note Records)

London Bridges

The evolution of London’s jazz-dance scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s that informed Us3 reverberates in Blue Lab Beats’ music too. The duo made their Blue Note debut on Blue Note Re:imagined, which contained their entrancing retooling of Hutcherson’s “Montara,” a tune that had also received a hip-hop treatment on Madlib’s Shades of Blue as well as 1996’s The New Groove: The Blue Note Remix Project, for which it was remixed by the Roots. Blue Lab Beats’ approach to “Montara” adheres closer to the Roots’ remix than Madlib’s, while also exuding a distinctive U.K. jazz-dance flavor. 

“’Montara’ is one of our favorite songs, and we loved that Madlib had already done something with it for Blue Note already,” says Mr. DM (David Mrakpor), who calls Shades of Blue his favorite Blue Note album. “We were surprised that ‘Montara’ is still one of Bobby Hutcherson’s least known songs, even though the chord sequence is quite iconic in the hip-hop world. The song’s harmony and melody make a story unto itself.”

Some could argue that Blue Note Re:imagined was Blue Note Records’ answer to Brownswood Recordings’ 2018 compilation We Out Here, which brightened the spotlight on London’s current jazz-dance scene. Both albums draw from the same pool of talent, including Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, and the quintet Ezra Collective, connected with the city’s jazz re:freshed cooperative that performed regularly at London’s Mau Mau Bar.

Motherland Journey, however, doesn’t rely on Blue Note samples or covers. Instead, NK-OK (Namali Kwaten) and Mr. DM craft a frothy jazz-inflected offering of Afrobeat, Antillean grooves, R&B, deep house, and broken beat topped with vocal cameos from the likes of Jerome Thomas, Ego Ella May, and Teni Tinks, resulting in a sound emblematic of the U.K.’s expansive Black music scene. 

Going back to Blue Note Re:imagined, another noticeable European link connecting it to Blue Note’s previous forays into DJ culture can be heard on the compilation’s opening cut: Jorja Smith’s pneumatic rendition of “Rose Rouge,” the signature nu-jazz anthem from French producer St. Germain’s 2000 Blue Note LP The Tourist. 

Like Us3’s “Cantaloop” in 1993, “Rose Rouge” became an international sensation. Smith’s version, however, replaces the original’s undulating rhythm—which was built on a sample of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”—with a lighter pulse that suggests Afrobeat, while retaining the motivating “I want you to put your hands together” call that was based off a sample of Marlena Shaw singing “Woman of the Ghetto.” This “Rose Rouge” revision doubles as a nice tip of the hat to Blue Note’s impact on the international jazz-dance scene.

Blue Note Re:imagined also harkened back to 2004’s superb Blue Note Revisited, a precursor to the kinds of remix/reimagine treatments that are now de rigueur. That project featured an international cast of DJs, including London’s Bugz in the Attic, 4hero, and Matthew Herbert. On cuts like Bugz in the Attic’s refurbishment of Gene Harris’ “Los Alamitos Latinfunklovesong” and 4hero’s rendering of Horace Silver’s “Won’t You Open Up Your Senses,” listeners heard threads of West London’s underground broken-beat and post-drum-n’-bass scenes—which paved the way for the likes of Blue Lab Beats.

Precursors: Producers Fonce (L) and Larry Mizell (photo: Dan Bolling)
Precursors: Producers Fonce (L) and Larry Mizell (photo: Dan Bolling)

’70s Jazz-Funk Footprints

Both Blue Note Re:imagined and Blue Note Revisited also serve as great reminders that DJ culture’s roots go back farther than the hip-hop of the late ’70s and early ’80s. It’s important to note the impact of ’70s disco, and pioneering DJs like David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, and Danny Krivit who ruled New York City’s bustling nightclub scene. Mancuso’s influential invitation-only Loft parties were renowned for their open-ended music playlists that ranged from psychedelic rock to disco and funk to jazz fusion. A deeper investigation into Blue Note Records’ catalog will reveal the U.K.-released 12-inch single of Donald Byrd’s “Wind Parade/Dominoes” from 1976, featuring a disco mix with edits by David Moore. 

Indeed, Blue Note’s ’70s catalog played a crucial role in anchoring the label to dance-music culture—especially the Byrd and Humphrey LPs produced by Larry and Fonce Mizell, which in turn became a goldmine of source material for hip-hop, broken-beat, and deep-house producers ranging from Dilla, DJ Premier, and Large Professor to DJ Spinna, Marc Mac, and Mark de Clive-Lowe. 

“Really, if it weren’t for those [Mizell-produced Blue Note] records, we wouldn’t have hip-hop,” DJ Spinna told me in 2004 for a JazzTimes feature, “Spin City.” “DJs like me and Madlib were looking for those records to sample years ago. After a while, we matured and went on to appreciate the musicianship behind those records.”

In that same feature, Larry Mizell explained to me that the brothers didn’t use any jazz musicians in their rhythm sections: “Instead, we used cats who played on pop and R&B sessions in Hollywood. In fact, we didn’t even call it jazz.” Many music historians don’t like to call it jazz either; despite (or perhaps because of) the commercial appeal of the Mizell Brothers’ work with Humphrey and Byrd, as well as similar material recorded by Ronnie Foster, Gene Harris, Eddie Henderson, and Marlena Shaw, jazz critics loathed much of the music that Blue Note produced during this time. And thus the label’s ’70s era under the leadership of Dr. George Butler continues to be either maligned or ignored. 

“We were sampling the stuff that was becoming funky before people were widely using the word ‘funk’ to call a genre of music.” –Geoff Wilkinson, Us3

Nevertheless, Blue Note recognized the enduring influence of this material when it released the 2005 compilation Mizell (The Mizell Brothers at Blue Note), which contained a remix of Byrd’s seminal “Think Twice” as well as a previously unreleased piece, “N R Time.” 

In fact, ever since the release of Us3’s Hand on the Torch, the label has been regularly putting out DJ-focused albums such as Eddie Piller’s four-disc Blue Break Beats series (released between 1992 and 1998) and former Blue Note A&R director Eli Wolf’s Droppin’ Science: Greatest Samples from the Blue Note Lab (2008). Curiously missing today, however, is anyone picking up the mantle left by DJ Smash with his two Phonography compilations.

Jorja Smith (Courtesy of Blue Note Records)
Jorja Smith (Courtesy of Blue Note Records)

Continuing Saga

Released respectively in 2001 and 2003, volumes 1 and 2 of Phonography illustrated how some of Blue Note’s then-current roster of artists—including Soulive, Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby, Charlie Hunter, Bob Belden, Ronny Jordan, and Medeski, Martin and Wood—were releasing original jazz that was ripe for modern DJs. Sadly, there’s been no sequel; perhaps this has something to do with a change of focus brought on by the rise of Robert Glasper, who’s become one of Blue Note’s most commercially and critically acclaimed artists over the last two decades.

When Glasper introduced his jazz/hip-hop/R&B combo the Robert Glasper Experiment in 2009, his fame grew exponentially. The popularity of the DJ culture-friendly group’s Black Radio LPs—including 2012’s Black Radio Recovered: The Remix EP—paved the way for similar albums of original material by artists like Derrick Hodge, Gregory Porter, José James, Takuya Kuroda, Marcus Strickland, Chris Dave, James Francis, and Otis Brown III. There were also 2015’s Supreme Sonacy, Vol. 1, a collaboration with Revive Music featuring DJ Raydar Ellis, Brandee Younger, and Raymond Angry, and 2018’s R+R=NOW, which featured Glasper, Hodge, Christian Scott, Terrace Martin, Taylor McFerrin, and Justin Tyson. 

All well and good. So far, though, no one like DJ Smash has curated a mix threading that material together the way he did with some of Blue Note’s late-’90s and early-aughts catalog. It’s prime time for Blue Note to re-enlist Smash for a long-overdue Phonography 3, connecting the dots between the beat-centric material from the aforementioned artists and the original music from Blue Lab Beats and other DJ-friendly acts that are awaiting in Blue Note’s future. 

John Murph

John Murph is a Washington, D.C.-based music journalist and DJ. He’s written for numerous outlets that include JazzTimes, DownBeat, NPR Jazz, JazzWise, The Root, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic Monthly. He hosts a weekly radio program at Eaton Hotel DC.