The Rough Guide to: 90s East Coast Jazz-Rap

By Joey Liang

Social awareness, heavy sampling, a funky bass undertone and rappers playing with each other between verses. The defining features of the 90s Jazz-Rap groups. 

This whole pile of short-lived amazingness all started when three hippies decided they would start a rap group (or in my opinion, more like a rapped-out-podcast) with a funky name, De La Soul.

In 1989 De La Soul dropped their debut album “3 Feet High and Rising”. The intro track made absolutely no sense to listeners at first, but straight after it came one of the group's most iconic songs, "The Magic Number". It hits listeners with a funky bass and loop, and the almost conversational singing and child-like rapping verses helps construct a relaxing and playful song, sprinkled with a little love for the masses in it, of course.

The love, the jazz, the bass, the loop. They all climax in my favourite song “Eye Know”. Sometimes in the dead of the night, whilst I’m stressing out I click on this song and just blast it on full volume. To feel the warmth... the love overflowing from this track through the sample of the saxophone, the whistling, and then the iconic sample of “I Know I Love You Better” entering through my ears and flowing through my bones for four minutes and then another four, and then another four... It’s an almost indescribable feeling.

Right after the madness of De La Soul’s debut album, a group of three kids of the same age, talented and inspired, took the genre to its peak and made it known to the masses. You might have heard of them, the classic, the legendary, A Tribe Called Quest.

(Fun Fact, Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were actually very close before both of them released their first album).

Unlike De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest took on a different approach to the genre whilst preserving the fundamental ideas. In the first track of their debut album, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm" they turned down the knob for funky jazz, AND THEY FUCKING CRANKED THE BEATS KNOB TO 500%. Q-Tip’s powerful, smokey vocals, worked like a hot summer daydream with the heavy kick drum and his slam-poetry reminiscent verses. Whilst Q-Tip flexed the hell out on us with his booksmarts, Phife Dawg came into the second verse answering him with street-smarts in his short and clever word-play. It almsot reminds me how jazz influenced their style even in rapping. Similar to two saxophones ‘playing’ with each other in Bebop.

The tribe had a really different way in bringing ideas and messages to the masses; instead of choosing happy funk-rap with jazzy undertones telling people how loved they were, Tip and Phife chose beats, slam-poetry and rhythm as their go-to option. They were exploring controversial issues such as date rape, consumerism, systematic racism and the unregulated music industry contemporary to America in the 90s (and today still).

“I can kick a rhyme over ill drum rolls; With a kick, snare, kicks and high hat”

The messages to the masses...The masses to the message.

"Almost perfect, something is missing though", Digable Planets thought to themselves after their first commercially successful album “Reachin". So they thought... they thought real hard. And fortunately for us, the light-bulb lit up and they found the answer. It was the emotion, the rich emotion that was missing from all these jazzy piles of amazingness.

So then came their second and unfortunately final album, "Blowout Comb".

If there was anything to be said about emotionally speaking masses whilst keeping all the features of the genre, the track “Black Ego” had it right... so right. The track has only three verses, from each member of the group respectively. Easing in with the mellow loop of electric guitar, bass and other instruments, and a cleaver playing with the sample of audio from a cop, the track immediately evaporates off the aroma of being emotionally heavy. And truth to that, the first phrase of the track by Ladybug Mecca told a story of a suicidal African American young adult who no longer has hope for his life after being subjected to years of extreme racism. The last phrase from her is so powerfully painful and beautiful I felt it compulsory to quote and share, so here you go:

“Check me in another place, space, and joy; Nothing you could serve could ever; Ace me boy”. 

Doodlebug followed, telling a story from the perspective of a rebellious and angry African American young adult with his verse. Contrasting to Ladybug’s melancholy verses, Doodlebug sought vengeance and retribution for his suffering.

Depression and rebellion. Perhaps the feeling of hope is what they were seeking ,to have their little sense of self back, or shall we call it, ‘black-ego’. Butterfly wasn’t sad or furious. He rose up from the carnage of racial inequality. He saw hope in the movement, finishing the body of the track with “Do my tha-a-ang like Huey with it, nigga”. Using a problematic word once given by the racist, and made it into a weapon for his people, and for sure, he and his people were going to fight. 

De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets. Mad respect from us. And we got your messages. 

We will fight them with your music playing in the back!

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