I was truly bummed a couple weeks ago when I saw the news that pioneer jazz rapper (and Gang Starr emcee) Guru had passed-on from cancer at 48. His 1993 Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 is a fixture in my Top 10 albums of all-time, and singlehandedly proved the roots of hip-hop were just as much jazz as they were funk. Those of us who grew up on early beatboxers like The Fat Boys and Doug E. Fresh always felt the jazz influence just below the surface of the emerging rap genre. Guru (aka, Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal) was simply among the first to fuse it together – and cut a studio album featuring hip-hop lyrics and beats over the top of a live jazz band.
In terms of listening to the album, track nine Trust Me (featuring N’Dea Davenport of the Brand New Heavies) was the most commercially popular song peaking at #50 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip Hop Singles & Tracks chart. For me, the strength of the album is that virtually every song is stunning – it’s a collection that has no weak links or throwaway tracks. My personal favorite is track five No Time To Play, and features Ronny Jordan on some of the finest jazz guitar since my dad was pumping Wes Montgomery into our living room speakers when I was five. In fact, the album is loaded with jazz standouts like Branford Marsalis, Donald Byrd, D.C. Lee (who vocals on No Time To Play) and Lonnie Liston Smith. Guru even stretches all the way to a mostly French rap featuring MC Solar on track 11 Le Bien, Le Mal. (If you want to follow the controversy around Solar and Guru's family & friends following his passing, check out #GURU on Twitter.)
The rest of the Jazzmatazz series (Volumes 2, 3 and 4) never quite lived up the mark set by Volume 1, but they’re worth a drive-by listen. The high-water mark – and absolute must-own for any hip-hop fan – is Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1. If you love jazz, use it to expand into old-school NYC rhymes, and if you’re already hip-hop aware let it open your horizons beyond tracks and beats. Enjoy the live BBC video below.