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Teaching Jazz to Rap

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Guru's Jazzmatazz

Metro, September 23

When Guru first threaded smooth jazz melodies with hip-hop's heavy bass lines in Gangstarr's 1989 single "No More Mr. Nice Guy," he was taking a risk--jazz fans screamed blasphemy, and hip-hop purists questioned its street credibility. He created an uproar, but he helped set the stage for such groups as Digable Planets, US3, the Roots, and Buckshot LeFonque.

Guru developed a reputation among hip-hoppers as a stylish, truth-telling rapper, though he never received much commercial success. His innovation and his allegiance to musical history--not his lyrics or style--distanced him from his peers. His mellow voice wasn't as commanding as Chuck D's or as charismatic as Rakim's, but his lyrics were always suavely delivered and meaningful, which helped him stand out from such hard talkin' braggadocios as L.L. Cool J and Kool Moe Dee. He attracted his own following, one that appreciated thought-provoking rhymes and music. Like Public Enemy, KRS-One, and Eric B and Rakim, Guru managed to realistically depict the streets and offer alternatives without seeming soft. Something he continues to do today.

At Metro Guru prefaced his performance of "Watch What You Say," the first single from his album, by explaining what inspired him to write it. "This is for MCs who be talkin' mad yang but don't be livin' it and don't even know anybody who's livin' it," he said, referring to the trend of rappers who make tough rhymes without the real-life experience to back it up. Guru built his reputation on no-nonsense verses like, "What if I take away your ornaments / And strip you down to the raw deal / Then I'll reveal / The evidence / Because you don't really represent."

Backed by Branford Marsalis's saxophone or Ramsey Lewis's piano, Guru delivers the verses with an undeniable smoothness and flair. His lyrics are good, but not outstanding. His voice is neither powerful nor distinct. Guru's gift is an ability to act as a musical historian, teaching his listeners by capturing their attention with fresh grooves and words they can identify with. This isn't an easy task. If there's too much teaching, it sounds like one long sermon.

Jazzmatazz Volume II, the New Reality mixes jazz masters Donald Byrd, Rueben Wilson, Freddie Hubbard, Ramsey Lewis, and Bernard Purdy with younger players Branford Marsalis, Ronny Jordan, and Kenny Garrett over smoothed-out hip-hop beats. Guru's rhymes slide over the music, even melding into a scat here and there. All the while, he's holding class about violence, gratitude, life's purpose, and, oh, jazz and hip-hop.

At Metro Guru was joined by Byrd, introducing him as a master and explaining, "Y'all part of history because Donald Byrd is up here onstage and he's a living legend. If y'all don't know that, you don't need to be here." During the second encore, Guru played "Jazz Thing," a 1990 tune honoring jazz pioneers Scott Joplin, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Bessie Smith, Monk, and Mingus. The audience responded with thundering applause. Guru had taught them to value the names, if not the songs. When the band went into Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally," a frequently covered tune, the crowd just nodded vaguely, not appearing to recognize the soul classic.

Guru ended his concert appropriately enough--with a hop-hop history lesson. "How many of you know how hip-hop started?" he asked screaming fans. "It started in the Bronx about '78. That's when gangs ended. We believe this music can save lives. Some people say that rap motivates violence, but that's BS. Music is healing and it's all about spirituality." And school was out.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.

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